Finding Inspiration in Failure
Surviving & Thriving on Substack: Lessons from Stephen King on Audience Growth & Mental Resilience.
When I need to reset, I test myself in the cold. It’s a habit formed from growing up in Scotland. Either you step out into the grey and confront it, or you let it seep into your sinews.
In Berlin, this attitude arms me against the gloom of its winters. When I first arrived the whip of its winds were counter-weighted by sparkling snowfall. Those white canopies come seldom now; but the need to battle the desolation remains.
And so in the evenings, I run. My route takes me through the cobbled streets of Neukölln, past where the wall once stood and up by Ostkreuz.
From there I stop and look out awhile at the city below. Trains glissade into the distance, orange comets whistling through the dark.
Stephen King’s “On Writing” has accompanied me in January.
Although not drawn to horror, I'm interested in all books about creativity, no matter the genre. There’s something special about an author reading his own work. Stephen King is a great narrator; partly because he’s direct and dry, and also because he’s too successful to care about hurting anyone’s feelings.
Over Ostkreuz the wind pinches. Like King it’s travelled a long way. The Siberian chill bites hard if you get lost in his narration and linger too long.
I downloaded “On Writing” because I was curious about three things:
- the secret behind his productivity
- his daily routine
- what I could learn
Having just finished it there’s one story in particular which lives with me. The young King - just in into his teens - already wrote prolifically. He sent out his stories to magazines and began to amass rejection slips. Curiously, he collected them. He’d store each one on a single nail he’d hammered into the basement wall.
“By the time I was fourteen the nail would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”
I love that he’d simply log it and crack on. In it - the romance, reality and pain of the artist: dark room, rejection, going on.
Many people see failure as something static. The disappointment leads to an ending. King on the other hand was animated by his failures.
You will fail in life. The difference between success and failure is: how many failures are you willing to amass?
The nail on the wall is symbolic. Each rejection slip was not a defeat. Rather signs that he was putting himself into the world.
"Stopping a piece of work because its hard, either emotionally or imaginatively is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feel like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position."
Stephen King, On Writing
Since the pandemic, writing returned to my life. It was my earliest dream, but one which ended abruptly when Mum died.
Death arrived as the final idea. It took me years to understand that mortality as an idea underpins all life. That it can galvanise, inspire and shape it. But when you’re emotionally devastated, it vacuums all potential into its vortex.
Writing online is rather like typing into a black hole. There are many words out there, and only a few survive the singularity. And so many of us make peace with this gentle oblivion.
King’s suggestion - to find inspiration in failure - shines a light in that space.
And hell, don’t we all need some tales of defiance and grit nowadays?
He was animated by his will to write. Sure he had ambitions. But these were not the motivator.
Starting my Substack, I’m unsure if my writing has an audience; or if it will find its audience.
But such thoughts are a matter of effect, not the act itself.
We too often stop something because a completely imaginary expectation fails to manifest.
“I’m talking about the commitment that says “I’m going to stay true to what I said I would do” - long after the mood that I’ve said it has left.”
What is driving me is that I need to write.
King validates that instinct, endorses the love of it as a motivation in itself.
It is many years since Mum died, but ideas are alive in me again. It deepens my relationship to things. It heightens my noticing. The act of naming something sends a shiver down my spine. To connect the threads between unexpected tangents animates my spirit. Writing decodes the mystery. It helps us see beyond our own “seeing”.
And so if each article feels like posting a next rejection slip on the wall, no matter!
It’s not a defeat, but rather a signifier that I am in life. And the thicker those papers cluster, the more my mind free’s of its own clutter.
The act of doing is enormously fulfilling in itself. To set out on what you decide to do, irrespective of what the void does with it.
Failure is a gateway to renewing our perceptions. As King says elsewhere in his book, we “construct paragraph at a time”.
Next to my own growing collection of nails in the basement, I even had my first victory.
I hesitated to call it that, but why shouldn’t we be one another’s triumph?
You, my first 10 paid subscribers. Supporting the reincarnation of a teenage boy who was broken but not defeated.
Writing is a Lazarus moment for me. And dam, resurrection is best shared with people that believe in you!
You compensate the black hole, and line it with stars.
Somethings are easy to forget, and need named to come alive. The energy in this new phase of my life is you, my mysterious cabal of supporters.
A lifeline with which I can approach the Black Hole not with terror, but as an explorer.
That’s what humans can be for one another; a source of salvation.
If there is some area you are struggling with in your life; try to have the courage to find inspiration in “failure”.
If this “failure” is something in motion, rather than static, it is just a part of your process. Not an ending, but a state of becoming.
Or as Stephen King would say: just another rejection slip ready to be impaled! Wear it as a badge, not as a weight.
Finally, let’s leave this post with some words from the mighty guru of horror himself. I found this on YouTube and it made me smile:
Godspeed brothers and sisters. We are all alive in the thick of our challenge. Keep venturing; you have no idea the meaning of today’s failure, or where it will lead you - should you choose to let it.