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Learning to fail.

Failing is easy and the most difficult thing in the world. I have always failed at games, domestic goddesshood, quadratic equations and needlework. As a child, I couldn't skip, peg up on a swing, remember the moves for elastic twist/french skipping or cat's cradle. I still can't do those things as an adult. I couldn't roller skate, dive or hit a rounder's ball, I ran like a duck and was very bad at my tables, but I didn't mind failing at those things because I could read and because I could make up stories and games. Failing at writing is a whole other ball game - one I actually want to play, one I'm invested in. I have pored over the rules, done the training and regard myself as a competitor. Failing at that hurts. It is hardly surprising that being so poor at games, I hated them. I had no ability and it didn't occur to me that I might be able to change that. I thought you could either do something or you couldn't. I could write good stories, my friend could hit a rounder's ball. These were immutable facts and I didn't believe they were subject to alteration. My views changed when I had kids - not because I suddenly developed an ability to hit a ball, if anything my skills have worsened with time, but because I watched my kids learn. I discovered that though there were clear differences in natural ball skills, with effort even the weakest could learn to catch and throw and run. It took practise and determination but after a few years, you couldn't tell who had the more natural ability and who had learned it the hard way: failure doesn't mean you should give up trying, you have to try harder. It is true that inspiration and native talent are only the starting point. As my kids grew they became pretty successful in their chosen sports and I became an avid supporter. They played for their club, school, university, region, even country. I was, and am, immensely proud, (some might say excessively and boringly so.)There were also a lot of matches and races lost, trials and selections that didn't go their way. I shared their disappointments, screamed a lot on touchlines and on towpaths, talked tactics and teammates and gained a respect for the team players and sportsman I had, to my shame, derided as a child. There was one day that sticks out in my memory: one son was on the bench for the most important game of his life and was just about the only player who did not get to play. When the whistle blew for full time and his boots hadn't touched the hallowed surface of the pitch, I was blindly furious on his behalf. I railed about the unfairness, was bitterly angry with the coach until my son with admirable maturity just said: 'I wasn't good enough, Mum. I wasn't first choice, next time I will be.' He was first choice the following year: failure doesn't mean you should give up trying, you have to try harder. Perhaps every sporty school boy is taught that, but it passed me by. It took me a while to grasp that failing at something you don't care about, isn't really failure. I thought I was quite good at failing at things, there being so many things I failed at. I was wrong. I do care about my writing and, sadly, I have failed at that a lot: books I've written haven't been published or if published haven't sold, or if they've sold haven't been shortlisted for prizes or, if shortlisted, haven't won. There have been more failures than successes and I don't believe there are many writers who couldn't make the same claim. What I've learned from watching my sporty kids is that failure is an essential part of the game. Everyone fails and the ones that succeed are those who don't give up, those who don't throw a tantrum, or throw in the towel, but just pick themselves up and try harder. There's not a successful sportsman who hasn't failed a selection, messed up a game, had a run of bad luck. There are always bigger, faster, younger players nipping at their heels. And one day they won't get picked anymore. Failure is the flipside of success, you don't get one without the other. This probably seems a very banal and trite observation, a truism if you like. Perhaps if you grow up playing sport and listening to after match chat, it is. However, the lessons every sportsman learns are not so obvious to a bookish self-involved literary wannabe - writing isn't a sport, for God's sake, it's serious. I would quite like to go back in time and shake my younger self and impart these two platitudes and make that younger awkward and self-obsessedd contrarian grasp their obvious truth: Even if you are really bad at something and fail constantly you can get better if you keep trying. Everyone fails, but if a game is worth playing, failing shouldn't mean you give up the game. Even when I fail, I am still a writer because I am still writing.

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