Perspectives on Failure
Sometimes I feel like a failure. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to suffocate under the weight of how much I’ve failed, and I have to inject some healthy delusion back into my self-perception just to keep doing what I do. I feel like I have to justify my every decision and action to a world of people who are judging me.
I talk a lot about winning the Ustinov on this blog. This isn’t an attempt at a humble brag, but rather an ongoing process of working out what that award meant to me. Before winning that award I was desperate and despondent; the truth I’d kept at bay, that I had nobody’s word but my own that I was a good writer, was starting to come home and it was terrifying. Because when you devote yourself to one thing and the possibility arrives that maybe you’re not as good as you thought you were at that thing, it’s horrible. The value of winning the Ustinov, then, can’t really be measured in the opportunities it afforded me, but rather in the fact that, when I needed it the most, it gave me proof that I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree.
But if I’m being honest? I wish it had led to more. Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder if I squandered the heat from the award, if I screwed up how I should have leveraged that validation into more of a career. It’s easy to blame other factors and people for this, but, like anything, it’s complicated and I have to wonder if I am fundamentally to blame for the fact that I haven’t sold a feature or become the showrunner of a TV show yet.
It always surprises me when people tell me how impressed they are with what I’ve done. Please don’t read that as false modesty, I’ve just never really been someone who knows how to process praise and as such I tend to awkwardly shuffle and try to smile without looking smug or constipated. Part of this is due to the fact that being told I’m amazing or whatever is so at odds with how I see myself. But then I remember that old truth; people never pay as much attention to you as you do to yourself. They see what you choose to show, and you’re hardly going to air all of your terrible insecurities to the world (unless you’re writing a blog like this).
Crucially, however, the fact that you don’t feel like the person people see doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. It’s the reason that biographies and autobiographies are both valuable; one is told from the inside, with all the biases that come with that, while the other can be more impartial, albeit without the same access and insight. Nobody will ever know us as well as we know ourselves, but conversely, we don’t always see ourselves that clearly, for better or worse. Self-awareness can only go so far.
On paper, I look like a success. At 26 I have two published novels, one of which was shortlisted for a major award, I have a production company that has been behind a whole bunch of very well received plays, I’ve won a screenwriting award from the International Emmys, and I’m the host of a podcast that has thousands of listeners worldwide. I work now exclusively as a writer and several of my stories have very exciting things going on that I can’t yet talk about.
I’m still broke and in debt. I still struggle to figure out how to make ends meet. I regularly see stories of writers my age or younger who have hit the big time and go on to bigger and better successes. And slowly, that old panic starts to creep back in. What if I’m wrong? What if I’m not good enough? What if the best of my career has already been and gone and I missed the chance to really make a go of it?
There isn’t any easy answer to these doubts, because they could be right. But I’m starting to see it as an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ thing, because I’m still very young. Sure, some writers find major success young, but most don’t achieve anything close to it until their thirties, forties or even later. Some never achieve any at all despite unquestionably deserving it. There’s no perfect or even obvious way to embark on a creative career because there are so many variables and the very question of your ability is subjective. As is the question of your success. Does working exclusively as a writer make you successful? It certainly puts you in the minority. What about having awards to your name? It looks good but it doesn’t mean much when you’re still figuring out how the hell you’re gonna pay rent this month. Being published? You try eating out on two dollars per book. Being on a popular podcast? Might cause more harm than good when you want to get into the industry but literally get paid to claim, without much to your name, that you can write better movies than the people you want to work for.
But in this industry you kind of have to take what you can get, because beggars can’t be choosers and unless you’re either absurdly lucky or absurdly talented, pursuing a creative career means consigning yourself to being a beggar for an indefinite amount of time. It doesn’t matter how much you might think you deserve something; that old problem of perspective will always trip you up. You might think you’re brilliant, but that doesn’t mean for a second that anyone else has to, and that’s a tough lesson to learn. The opposite could be just as true. The question then is how you decide to respond to that discrepancy of perspectives.
I get contacted a lot by young writers who listen to Movie Maintenance, often wanting advice or feedback. While I don’t give feedback on people’s writing (unless I’m getting paid for it, sorry) I’m always happy to give advice and that advice always amounts to the same thing; almost none of us know what we’re doing and success, if it ever comes, is an imperfect cocktail of luck, talent, inhuman persistence and lots of hard work. And as hopeless as it might seem sometimes, remember that you will almost always be your own harshest critic. Because where you see a failure, somebody else might just see an inspiration.
Earlier tonight I watched Twice Upon a Time, the latest Doctor Who Christmas Special and swansong for Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor as well as showrunner Steven Moffat. Just in case those goodbyes didn’t make it enough of an event, it also featured the brilliant David Bradley stepping into the shoes of original Doctor William Hartnell, something I’ve been hoping for as a fan for years now. It was a deep dive into the often tangled mythology of the show and for the most part they pulled it off well. But there was one moment that struck me. During a particularly reflective scene with Bradley’s Doctor the ethereal ‘Gallifrey’ music that always turned up during the especially important parts of David Tennant’s run started to play. It was a way to underline the significance of what was happening; a collision of the different eras of this show on the eve of a whole new beginning.
And I felt nothing.
That little snippet of spookily singing voices used to be an immediate goosebumps-giver in the times when I was intoxicated by Who mythology, the times I wanted to know everything about the history of the Time Lords and got giddily excited any time the show made reference to its past. In the last few years however, moments like this have been so par for the course that they’ve lost any real meaning. Under Steven Moffat Doctor Who has become so in love with itself, so caught up in the epic importance of everything that’s happening (but mainly the epic importance of its central character) that any sense of mystery or power or intrigue has long since been sapped. For my money the show was at its best when it foregrounded the little people, when it was the story of the companions and their slow realisation of their own potential with the epic moments being the little treats rather than the whole meal. Basically, when the show was under the stewardship of Russell T Davies. In the years since his departure I have looked everywhere for that old feeling the show used to give me and never once got it.
But you know what? That’s okay. Because many new fans started the show with Moffat and fell in love with his grandiose, fantasy-flavoured vision, comparatively finding Davies’ more mundane, camp version kind of lame. The last few years I’ve been on a steady learning curve of realising that I can still enjoy Doctor Who even though it’s no longer the show I fell in love with because hey, the series is inherently about change and before long it will be different again. And beyond that, it would be impossible to replicate my version of Doctor Who because my version is so tied to a particular place and time. My Doctor Who comes hand in hand with memories of being in boarding school, of waking up at five in the morning on a weekend I was home with my parents to watch a whole bunch of Who before returning to school because my younger brothers wouldn’t let me take the DVD with me. It’s the summer holidays in which I hired all of Torchwood from the local video store and made my much cooler friends sit through it with me while I insisted with decreasing certainty that this really was good TV. It’s discovering torrenting and watching every new episode in my room at school, falling in love with Donna and having my heart broken at her fate. Ultimately, the way I loved Doctor Who can never truly be replicated because it’s so coloured by being part of a very particular time in my life; even if Russell T Davies and David Tennant returned it wouldn’t really be the same. As such, if I’m ever going to love this show again, I need to be open to whatever comes and willing to accept that just because it’s not for me anymore doesn’t mean it’s not for someone else.
When The Last Jedi came out I was initially apprehensive because I wasn’t really impressed by any of what Disney had done with the franchise thus far. Yes, I wanted my Star Wars back but I found it insulting as an audience member to watch the studio produce content that was designed to pander to my nostalgia, to evoke a past feeling rather than create a new one. Watching The Last Jedi I was struck by the fact that I seldom felt like I was watching Star Wars the way I knew it, but rather like I was watching something new emerge from the foundations.
Do I love The Last Jedi the way I loved the original films? Of course not. How could I? They were a part of my formative years and, like the friends we grew up with, the significance of that will never go away. But crucially The Last Jedi gave me hope that there might yet be something for me to love in Star Wars, something that honours the old but isn’t beholden to it.
Nostalgia, in the end, is as empty as it is powerful. It’s literally the yearning for something we can never have again, and when a film or book or TV show is emotionally tied to an important part of your life, they tend to take on magnified importance in your world. It’s the reason fans get so caught up in whether The Last Jedi was an insult to the franchise or Steven Moffat ruined Doctor Who. In the end a movie is just a movie and a TV show is just a TV show, but what we attach to those properties make them so much more, leaving the current stewards of the stories we love with an impossible task. Is it any wonder Rogue One just threw a thousand Easter eggs at us and hoped for the best? As fans we put so much pressure on the current iterations of our favourite stories to give us what we loved in the first place, but they can never do that. Often the best we get is a pale imitation that isn’t much more than a sugar rush; briefly exhilarating and swiftly forgotten.
The magic of The Last Jedi was that it let me fall in love with Star Wars again by burning down what I thought I knew about Star Wars. Somehow, paradoxically, this meant that when Luke Skywalker faced his destiny at the end, suddenly I felt that old magic come rushing back. Because if we open ourselves up to change rather than furiously clinging to the way we think things should be, maybe our love for those things can grow rather than be frozen in carbonite.
It's a risk that doesn’t always pay off; Doctor Who, for me, being the prime example. But every now and then in Moffat’s run came moments where I could see a version of this show that I might be able to love again. Those moments never crystallised into something lasting, but the fact that they were there gave me hope. And if I never truly love Doctor Who again then, well, I’ll always have those Davies seasons and I’m content enough with everything this series gave me to be able to let go a little and be open to whatever comes next.
It might suck. But then again, it might be brilliant. I’ll take either over stagnation.
Writing words about writing words.