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The art of failing better

By and
Q&A | 12 minute read
Christina Patterson has faced some of life's biggest struggles, including cancer, family loss and redundancy. There is no right advice, she says, but there might be ways to come out the other end still standing - and laughing

Arifa Akbar: What led you to write a book about failure, and rising out of it?

Christina Patterson: To be absolutely honest, I’d felt like a failure all my life. I felt I’d failed in all the things I thought you were meant to do. I hadn’t got married, or even managed a long-term relationship. I hadn’t had children. Freud talked about love and work as ‘the cornerstones of our happiness’ and I thought: well, I’ve failed massively on one of those, but at least I’ve got my work. And then one day I got a letter from the management about ‘synergies’, and was told by the editor of my newspaper that he was ‘freshening’ the pages up. And suddenly I was facing my fiftieth birthday with no partner, no family and no job.

Newspapers aren’t rushing to recruit middle-aged women who have just been fired. The business model for journalism is failing and most are cutting back on their staff. I thought it was unlikely that I’d get another job as a journalist, or at least one that was anything like the one I had before. But I still had my skills as a journalist and I decided it was time to start talking to people about their losses and disappointments, to see if I could get some sense of how other people had coped when their lives had gone wrong. And one of the things I learnt, of course, is that many of us feel we have failed.

AA: Your book documents immense personal challenges – from illness in your twenties to losing your job as a high-profile newspaper columnist to untimely family loss and breast cancer. You are open about envy of other people’s charmed lives too. How easy was it to recount and write those experiences – was it cathartic to some degree, or difficult to draw wisdom from anguish?

CP: I think envy is something that isn’t talked about enough. Everybody feels envious of somebody at some point and it’s not a pleasant feeling, but envy can be a positive thing as well. Sometimes, when you get that thud you have learnt to recognise as envy, it can spur you on to do things you wouldn’t otherwise have done. I have, for example, been envious all my life of people who have written and published books, but at least that’s something I can now tick off my list!

I’ve always been a very heart-on-my-sleeve person, so I don’t find it particularly difficult to be honest about my feelings, either in my head or when I write them down. But letting other people read those thoughts is another matter. One or two people have said that they were shocked that I said in the book that I was ‘once envious of someone who was at Auschwitz’. It is, obviously, a very shocking thing to say. But in that particular moment, it was true, and I do think it’s important to be as truthful as you can.

Writing about some of my most traumatic experiences was both painful and cathartic. Certain things, in particular, trigger quite a physical response. When I think of the night before I lost my breast, and lying on the ward afterwards, feeling abandoned and alone, I just want to lie down and howl. And every time I think of that last meeting with the editor of the newspaper I used to work on, I have a sick feeling in my stomach. But in the process of writing about it, I do think there’s a certain feeling of slaying dragons. It’s almost a kind of alchemy. You turn something truly horrible into something else – or at least you try to. And you hope that at some point some wisdom will emerge.

AA: Do you think that sorrow has lessons to teach us – the idea that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger – or is that a cliché?

CP: I think almost anything in life can teach us something, and suffering can make us stronger, but it certainly doesn’t always. I had a very grim time in my twenties, with a lot of illness and difficulties, and I would have swapped any lessons culled from that suffering for a much easier time. I’ve always strongly resisted the view that things happen for a reason. They don’t. Many things in life are pretty random. Often the only choice we have is how we respond – and most of us aren’t particularly heroic. But I do think that people who have suffered are often kinder, more compassionate and more empathetic than people who have had easy lives. I think they’re often better at building connections with other people, and their relationships are deeper and more fulfilling. I’ve been awestruck by the courage and kindness of some of the people I’ve interviewed in my book, but I can’t imagine that many of them would have chosen to go through the things they went through. And sometimes people are crushed by pain. Life can be senselessly cruel.

AA: The importance of poetry is clear in your book – you have been the director of the Poetry Society and you quote the poetry of John Keats and Philip Larkin, as well as talking to poets such as Mimi Khalvati and Benjamin Zephaniah about their struggles. What kind of a role do poetry and fiction play in testing times? Can words on a page relieve suffering for you?

CP: I could spend all day trying to answer this question, or perhaps a decade or so writing a PhD on it! But essentially I think all good writing – whether it’s journalism, fiction, non-fiction, poetry or theatre – tries to make something beautiful out of the mess of life. The cliché is that it imposes order on chaos, and it’s a cliché because it’s true. I love poetry in particular because it’s such a compressed and musical way of capturing truth. There’s so much discipline in that shaping and paring down. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do – so hard that I haven’t even dared to try – but the things in life that are most difficult are often the things that yield the most beauty. A great poem offers you more every time you read it. And great literature makes you feel less alone.

AA: You begin the book with the harrowing experience of losing your job as a high-profile columnist (at a newspaper I too worked on, so I remember the moment you describe so vividly). You recount how you are taken into the editor’s office and told that he wants to ‘freshen up the pages’. There are later discussions with Harriet Harman about ageism in the workplace, especially towards women of a certain age. Do you believe the print press to be ageist any more than other professions?

CP: This is quite a difficult question to answer. It might sound ridiculous, but until all this blew up I had never seen the world through a particularly gendered lens. I think partly because I was single and didn’t have a family, I had never really felt like a ‘woman in the workplace’ or defined myself in relation to men. I just felt like a person, trying to do a good job. Before I became a full-time journalist, I was the director of the Poetry Society (the first woman to run it since Muriel Spark in 1948) and before I became ‘a boss’, all my bosses had been women. So I didn’t think there was this terrible patriarchy that was trying to beat us all down.

When I moved to a newspaper, I was struck by how macho it all was, after the relatively genteel worlds of book publishing and the arts. It was a very male-dominated world and there was an awful lot of testosterone and ‘willy waving’. But I wouldn’t say it felt particularly sexist. Just aggressive! And then there was a regime change and it all felt very different, and unpleasant.

On balance, I would say that newspapers, like many workplaces, do operate on some fairly sexist assumptions. Women are often shunted into the ‘soft’ areas like the arts, fashion, lifestyle etc. I think I was very lucky to write about politics and ‘the big issues’ for a while, but that doesn’t seem nearly as possible now.

AA: Losing your job had a devastating effect on your life for some time, you suggest, and you also show how it affects others, such as the newspaper editor who was sacked and yet kept up the charade of going to the office with a briefcase to his children. But you also write that ‘There’s now a lot of research to show that failure is central to success.’ Looking back on your worst experiences, did they have any positive outcomes? Did the job loss for example, lead to a reconfiguration of identity that was liberating in any way?

CP: When I met that newspaper editor who kept up the charade of going into the office for a while, he told me that losing his job was the best thing that ever happened to him. We had a drink the other day and he still feels that. I certainly wouldn’t say the same. I felt bruised for a long time, and the hardest thing to cope with was losing my column. I felt as if had literally lost my voice, and without being able to speak in my own voice, to a regular readership, I didn’t know who I was. But that newspaper has gone now, and everything has changed, and I think I’ve just about accepted the loss of that readership and what it meant to me.

And yes, there were masses of positive outcomes, of course. I’ve met so many interesting people in the past five years. I’ve done lots of different kinds of work, for lots of different people. I’ve had glimpses into new worlds. I’ve had no regular income, but I’ve just about survived financially and that gives you a certain sense of self-reliance. I miss the security of a regular income, but I certainly don’t miss having a boss. I like my independence and I don’t want to give that up. I think I’ve learnt to cope without the crutch of the status, and security, that my job gave me. And that feels like quite a big thing to have learnt.

AA: As a society we often feel shame in talking of our failures, but you have incredibly powerful case studies who speak openly and intimately about their disappointments and struggles, from testimonies about job loss to infidelity, grief, schizophrenia and autism in children, illness and much else. What kind of a trail did you follow to find these people, and then how easily did they open up to you?

CP: Yes, the people I spoke to were amazing, and incredibly generous in telling their stories with extraordinary honesty. I knew most of them already. Some were, and are, close friends. I wanted the book to be very personal: personal in my own story, of course, but personal in that the people I spoke to were people I knew and admired. There were a few people I met along the way and liked, and who I managed to persuade to speak to me. But I have been interviewing people for a living for many years, so that was one journalistic skill I hope I was able to put to good use!

AA: The book is incredibly funny too. Is the humour there deliberately to leaven the misery? And do you think there is some element of courage in humour?

CP: I’m very glad you think it’s funny. Thank you! I just think things should be enjoyable if they can be, and I do think books (and films and plays and conversations) are often more enjoyable if there’s a bit of humour in the mix. Life can be grim enough and we all need cheering up. I think you’re probably right that there is an element of courage in humour. If we can force ourselves to take a step back from a situation, we might see some humour in it, and this can also give us some energy to keep going. But also it’s just nice to have a laugh.

AA: You say this is not a self-help book and you poke fun at self-help books. There is one very funny passage when you say ‘I have never yet found a book called I Feel So Awful I Don’t Know What to Do.‘ Did you find the self-help industry to be at all helpful when you were going through some of the worst times?

CP: The short answer to that is probably no. I don’t think I’ve ever read a self-help book that has actually helped me, but I also have to admit I’ve never followed any of the instructions or done any of the exercises. I used to treat self-help books as a kind of fantasy fiction. I’d sit down, with a nice glass of wine and a bowl of Kettle Chips, and breeze through this alternative universe full of perky advice and exclamation marks. For a couple of hours, it might make me feel a bit better. God, if only someone could give you instructions on how to live your life! It would all be so much easier. Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. The reason I call my book The Art of Not Falling Apart is that it is an art. It’s not a science. There’s no formula. We all just do our best. But I hope my book offers a bit of collective wisdom, and some glimpses of joy, to help a few people along the way.

AA: You quote Larkin’s line, ‘What will survive of us is love’, and you go on to say that, ‘In the end, what matters is having someone to love’. But what about those who do not find a life partner to love us but do have a love of books, or nature, or art? Can having ‘something’ to love rather than ‘someone’ be as fulfilling, in your view?

CP: I always used to be tormented by that line from Larkin. I used it as a stick to beat myself. You haven’t even found love, you failure! I’d say the main thing I’ve learnt, through all the interviews, and more years on this planet than I now want to acknowledge, is that there’s no right way to live a life. We find our joy where we find it. That could be through one relationship, or through a network of loving friends, or through literature, art, poetry, football, gardening or whatever it is that floats your boat. The epigraph to my book is also a quote from Larkin. It’s from his poem ‘Born Yesterday’. May you be dull, he says, ‘If that is what a skilled,/ Vigilant, flexible,/ Unemphasised, enthralled,/ Catching of happiness is called.’ It is, in other words, about catching happiness where you find it. I’d like to raise a giant glass to that.

Christina Patterson’s book, The Art of Not Falling Apart, is published in May by Atlantic.