There have been many surprises since I embarked on a career as a writer: the constant feelings of inadequacy, long bouts of creative constipation, the acute pleasure of getting pissed with other writers at literary launches, and the vast amount of time I spend planning and writing applications. If I could somehow conjure a world in which all these applications came to fruition – the residencies, collections, cross-disciplinary exhibitions, the visits to galleries and archives around the world – I would be significantly closer to a Nobel Prize than I am in my present form. However, according to the realities of failure, the majority of these hours of administrative work have resulted in something more aborted, the idea of a thing rather than the thing itself. 

Some recent failed applications have included a residency to a city in Galicia where I would have written poetry that reflected the links between Greek, Irish and local mythology through a tower named for Hercules; a stay in the Provence home of a dead artist I have been writing about for a number of years; and a multi-faceted collaborative project pairing contemporary writers with historical Irish women artists that would have culminated in either a touring exhibition, a podcast or a publication (depending on which version of the application you were reading). In my deepest hours of self-doubt, I have considered that perhaps these unsuccessful proposals are some of the best work I have ever made or will ever make. Acts of pure speculative imagination read only by a small panel of my peers and superiors. 

Before I became a writer, I had already failed quite a lot. I like to think it was good practice. For reasons now beyond my comprehension, I set out to become a dentist after school. As a committed horse girl, I had originally wanted to study veterinary medicine, but my uncle, a vet, advised that there would be a lot of early mornings during lambing season and dentistry would be a good alternative. I was doing a mix of sciences and English Literature at A level and was provided with a short list of ‘appropriate’ professions to go into. Those applying for medicine, law, dentistry or Oxbridge were given special careers classes, and I have always been motivated by feeling special.

After three years of studying in Glasgow, I was gently pushed out the door when I failed my anatomy exams. I had voiced my discomfort at cutting up cadavers in the wake of a number of family deaths and subsequently the lecturer told me “When I am uncomfortable I think of the things my grandfather saw in the Great War and I just carry on.” After that I just did what came naturally to me and took to my bed, attending classes infrequently until my passive protest made it clear to administrators that my commitment to dentistry was lacking. Before I could really protest, my career was over. 

I remember at the time this was seen as a great shame upon my family, and the inevitable end of my professional (financial) potential. This huge failure was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. In the same way as I feel strangely about people my age who have never experienced a major bereavement, I feel concerned for people who have never truly fucked up their lives. Imagine having that virgin experience hanging over you somewhere in the future. I learned quickly how to pick myself up and start again. In fact, I became so practiced in the art of recovery that I have managed to fuck and unfuck my life up many times since.

When I speak with writers who are just starting out, they often ask about how to manage the rejections. As far as I can tell you either get used to it, or you don’t – and it chews you up. I have learned to send out applications and then forget about them until the email arrives. Rejection becomes background noise. Of course, some knock-backs do sting, but only for a short time. I can see the benefit of building up enough notches on your failure belt that they no longer hurt, but as an editor I don’t subscribe to the one hundred rejections method of gaming the literary world. I don’t agree with sending work indiscriminately to unsuitable journals and magazines. Part of publishing is learning where your work fits and, beyond the first flurry of excitement when you discover the world of journals, this scattergun approach only serves to clog the channels from writing to publication. Of course, this is just my personal opinion, and I won’t begrudge anyone their vast and beautifully coloured submission chart. 

Amongst the ruins of my own failures are a selection of successful proposals. However, it is impossible to project a perfect presentation of what a piece of work will turn into through a series of bullet-points in an application. As an example, when I started writing essays I was fixated on the idea of solitude being imperative for creative work. I had just gone through a break-up that necessitated a complete rebuilding of my life and ego; a self-sculpting into a person who was not only happy alone but was at peak creative performance. I was convinced of the importance of my own independence, collecting artists to study who had led solitary lives and figuratively turning my nose up at all the settled and happy couples. I knew the secret to being an artist was complete isolation, and I wanted to write about it. I was only a few essays in before I met my boyfriend, who invited me to move in with him in Galway a matter of weeks later. 

It became painfully clear that my book on solitude was dead before it had even arrived. There he was every morning and evening, working at the kitchen table in front of me, beside me on the couch watching his silly little films, in bed reading his silly little books. How was I supposed to write the book on solitude that I had pitched to my agent, to potential PhD supervisors, to the Arts Council, when I was no longer living the life I was proposing to write about? I had no option but to adapt. 

This need to change as time goes by and as projects develop has become very important to me. There is of course a nobility in steady commitment to an idea or subject; some of the most interesting work has been made by writers and artists who have figured out their niche and stuck to it, but I think that kind of practice would bore me to tears. One of the benefits of living in a state that supports artists, rather than art as a product, is that I have been able to follow my nose down trails that I would otherwise have had to ignore. I can allow myself the kind of creative appetite that nibbles a little here and a little there: a bit of Surrealism perhaps, or some poetry, a collaboration with a musician, or a long talk with an artist who makes aerial maps of waterways. 

In the process of reassessing my would-be-solitude book, I have learned so many things that enrich and contradict the ideas I had started out with. A lot of the women artists I was interested in didn’t live solitary lives. Quite a lot of them turned out to be in queer relationships, or at least undefined partnerships. Luckily there were other people out there writing beautiful books on the subject: Amy Key’s book, Arrangements in Blue, is a tender look at solitude that captures so much of the exquisite pain of loneliness as well as a life lived with pure joy; A Life of One’s Own by Joanna Briggs details her twin griefs of bereavement and divorce through the lives of eight women writers. I’m grateful I got to read these books without the horrifying pressure of knowing I was trying to do something along the same lines. Perhaps it is possible for me to now imagine my own solitude book as a shadow to the one I am currently writing, or perhaps as a parallel track on which I never met my boyfriend and lived a wonderful life of creative independence with a perfectly tidy house and girl dinners every night. When I suggested this to him, he laughed and told me it wouldn’t last a week. 

We have recently moved house and it has allowed me the opportunity to appraise our life together and the way we have come to form a literary scene of two; reading and editing each other’s work as well as working on The Pig’s Back journal, which we edit together. (Technically he is the Managing Editor, but I try not to let that go to his head.) I have also formed close collaborative relationships with other writers; Jo Burns – another ex-dental student – and I have a joint book coming out soon with Doire Press, and I am constantly scheming with artists about strange cross-discipline work we could make together. I find it inconceivable now that I thought working alone could nourish me creatively.

Other projects have gone awry: collaborations that never really came together, writing that felt forced and intensely difficult to produce. But that is part of the process of making a body of work, it isn’t always going to go well. Ask any writer and they will tell you in great detail how absolutely awful it all is; whole evenings are spent discussing how terribly respective books are going, bad reviews, difficult publishers and agents, mind-fog that stops you from stringing together even the most basic sentence. 

It is gratifying to have these conversations, alighting upon a collective understanding of the difficulties in finding a way through. Knowing and working with other writers has been a comfort; companionship as each of us seek moments of clarity that feel few and far between. Even when things seem impossible and the labours insurmountable, here we are, still dreaming up proposals and ways to work together, leaking novels and poems and essays out into the world. 

This essay forms part of an ongoing series of reflections on the writing life edited by Olivia Fitzsimons.

Previously‘We can’t all be a fresh new voice in literature’ by Sheena Patel