Here’s the thing: life is an amalgam of clichés. ‘Time is a healer’; ‘When one door closes, another one opens’; ‘Everything happens for a reason’. The list goes on. The one crucial aspect of the surprisingly trivial matrix known as Life is how you deal with failure. Setbacks can feel disheartening at best, and catastrophic at worst. Nevertheless, with time and the perspective it gives, things more often than not fall into place. All you need to do is let them.
This probably all sounds a little too cryptic without any context. Being one of the ‘older’ students on Napier’s MSc Publishing course, I was well aware that many of my peers had only just completed their undergraduate degrees, while my life so far had been interspersed with inconsequential jobs, and desperate—often pipe-dream—attempts at finding that most nebulous of concepts: a direction.
Being someone who has made a habit of making their life more complicated than it perhaps needs to be, my impulsion has (up to now) always diverted me away from my greatest strengths. For example, I have always written. I created my first book when I was six or seven, by folding A4 paper in half, stapling the spine, and filling it with a Gulliver’s Travels rip-off thinly disguised by the fact that all the characters were reindeer (I hasten to add that I created this gem around Christmastime). I finished my first novel-length story when I was 16, and have written two more since. They’re certainly not of a quality fit for actual publication, but that’s not the point. All those hours spent writing involved a great deal of self-editing. Subconscious processes of assimilation were unfolding without my knowing: I began to understand the innate rhythm of prose as well as poetry, the importance of mimetic descriptions, when to be deliberate with adjectives, when to avoid adjectives altogether. In short—and here’s another cliché—to “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
And yet, despite my compulsion for the written word, I never considered it as a career choice. It seemed too unrealistic to me that anything would come of it. Of course, I have now learnt that this was a sensible choice: my first trimester studying publishing has revealed that authors are paid a pittance unless they perchance get a movie deal with Warner Bros.
I jest, of course. Authors write because they are compelled to, not for the lucrative royalties. Publishing, and everything it entails, is a risky environment in which to dabble. It is rife with gambles and misjudged endeavours. Nevertheless, take a look at all the outstanding books out there. More often than not, those books—nascent, untouched by anyone other than their author—began their lives as a risk worth investing in. After tripping through my life thus far, tiptoeing into academic pursuits beyond undergraduate-level, working for a year in Waterstones and then, bizarrely, for Ralph Lauren (I folded polo-shirts with such exactitude you’d think a machine had done it, and I did that for at least four hours a day. That’s the truth), and finally, a brief venture into teaching English in Japan, it felt to me like I had returned to where I’d begun: with writing.
But not quite. Here’s another cliché: “Know thy self, know thy enemy”. Why did I not take a creative writing course? you may well ask. I do feel that in certain circumstances, “classes will dull the mind, destroy the potential for authentic creativity.” The other answer has actually been proven to me in taking this course in publishing: the creative industries were a complete unknown to me until I was thrown in at the deep-end in September. I hasten to add that my fascination with publishing has naturally evolved from my fascination with literature. Ironically enough, it has been my own complete ignorance regarding publishing as an industry, which led me into taking this degree. I write, but how in the hell does this attempt at a novel transform itself into a printed, distributed piece of work found in bookshops, and even more terrifyingly, on Amazon?! Publishing was the enemy: I had no other choice but to become familiar with its nuances and idiosyncrasies.
To date, it is no longer an enemy. True, I experienced a week of total panic at the start of the course, half-resigning myself to the belief that I had made a mistake and got myself in too deep with this publishing malarkey, and that I’d be heading back to the hellish phantom of those polo-shirts waiting for me in a Godforsaken corner of east London. But time is a healer. And life is what you make of it. It may have taken me a little longer than others to get to this point in my life, but I don’t for a moment believe that any of my experiences so far have been useless, or wasted time. If you fall off the horse, you get back up in the saddle. If you’re living life properly, then you are inherently risking setbacks. There is, however, something remarkably transformative about failure. My advice to you then, would be this: if that risk feels like a worthy one, take it.
In the meantime, I’m no longer panicking. That panic seemed to pass through a paradigm shift overnight, and I moved into the next day with a swelling enthusiasm. That day led into the next week, and before I could even find my bearings, the first trimester had come to a close. Within three months I had taken on volunteering work with Streetreads, had got a freelance copyediting job with ArtMag, could produce (just about) a basic book template on InDesign, and can now claim that I am at least a little bit knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the publishing industry in the UK and beyond. Now that it’s the Christmas break, I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve been twiddling my thumbs for the past five days.
So, here’s the thing: or as Teddy Roosevelt put it: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
Risk failure, and live vibrantly. That’s why I’m here, and why, despite the trials and tribulations of getting through my twenties with my sanity just about intact, I have found an industry—a community, even—in which I feel quite at home. Publishing has so much to offer, but conversely, it has so much growing to do. Grab hold of that beanstalk, I say. My career has only just begun.