Sunday, March 26, 2023

How to fail...

When I was getting my Masters in English Literature, I wrote a thesis “The Function of Language in Feminist Dystopias”. Amongst the four novels analyzed was Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, 

My well-worn copy of the book, by Virago Press.

which at that point had not been put into film yet, that followed a little later, nor had Netflix been invented and the series that everybody rages about now been made.

About a year and a half after writing the thesis, I had the opportunity to go to a reading by Atwood, and in the aftermath, of course, went to have a book signed. 


I told her that I had written a thesis on the Tale, she replied ‘Did you?’ and immediately turned to the next person in line. I was, perhaps understandably, mildly taken aback at the utter lack of interest on her side. It took me a while to overcome this reaction, which I considered a severe rejection of my groundbreaking discoveries. (Nevertheless, I did continue reading her books and enjoying her wonderful style. And went ahead and bought her newest book of stories just as it came out recently.)

Only rather recently did I understand that she was probably getting that kind of information about fifty times at every single reading she was doing, and then finally the intelligent me went on to figure out that if I had written a very successful novel I probably wouldn’t be terribly interested in hearing what any literature student who came along would analyze into it either. So I have forgiven her for the rebuff and made my inner peace with her. This was also partly due to a long radio documentary on Margaret Atwood on Deutschlandfunk radio that I listened to. It featured a lot of her original voice, even though it had the fault of voice-over translation, but nevertheless there was enough of her wit and spirit to catch beyond the translations. I have been following Margaret Atwood on Instagram (@therealmargaretatwood), and there she pointed out recently that she had started a Substack, so now I follow her there as well (In the Writing Burrow). On Substack she mentioned that she had been interviewed by ElisabethDay for her ‘wildly successful’ podcast ‘How to Fail’. While I was waiting for the episode with Atwood to be published I listened to a number of episodes with those celebrities whom I had heard about before (such as Jane Goodall, GretaThunberg, Tom Daley, Bernadine Evaristo, and others) , going backwards in time, plus a few others that happened to come up when one episode was finished while I was driving and couldn’t switch to another program.

Hearing about so many kinds of events that could be considered failures in people’s lives, but that ‘ultimately make us better’, of course, made me think about my own failures. And how I would talk about them should I be interviewed for that podcast, which won’t happen, because I am not a celebrity of any kind. Quilting related (somewhat), these three failures of mine could be mentioned (Day always asks her interviewees to provide three failures that are then talked about, though not exclusively, in the episode).

I am a complete failure at self-promoting, and therefore never managed to really get my ‘business’ for longarm quilting commissions off the ground. Although I had fallen in love with the machine, and enjoyed using it as such, I really did not enjoy quilting for others. The machine was in a small room, which was completely blocked by it and my husband finally mildly pressured me to pass the machine on to a friend. Where I can still use it when I want, but I have to make time to travel there, can’t just hop up the stairs and quilt for an hour, and, of course, I have lost the bit of practice I had attained. Last week I did go to her place and quilted my temperature quilt, which is bound to be shown in exhibition in May and still needs some work. 


A lot of things went wrong, including that I failed to pack the batting I had chosen, had to go out to buy some at the local store, which was of a completely different quality and forced me to change the planned ‘destination’ of the quilt. It will be a quilt to put on the wall. Ripping out 24 circles followed, and the realization that the lack of practice leads to a less satisfactory appearance in the end. Oh well – it will appear in public once, and then be a private thing.


 After all the work that went into handsewing the blocks, however, there is a bit of a disappointment to be felt, I admit.  

Second failure: Last year I learned that SAQA was putting out a call for an exhibition “Color in Context – RED”, and really wanted to enter. I have an idea, I have collected things and fabric that were going to go into this quilt – but I failed to even start it. By now the deadline is well past, the entrants have been chosen. I have heard that there were around 500 entries, out of which approx. 46 were chosen. At least this failure saved me from failing to get into the show. And I can still start at some point, without the pressure to meet a deadline because I do want to make that quilt.

Third failure: Recently I finished the top for my son’s 18th birthday quilt. This is supposed to be more grown-up in appearance than the one he himself designed when he was smaller and I had finished a lot of HSTs in blue and orange, and he wanted a quilt for himself.


For this new top I had fabric printed on demand with a photo of a piece of paper with his handwriting on it. The design is nothing fancy, just using the Free Wheeling Single Girl template set by Denyse Schmid once more, to make them their money’s worth. 


It’s a wonderful top, nothing of a failure here – but sometimes I feel like I have failed to install some of my personal values in my son’s brain. Of course, he is a different generation than I am, has grown up in a completely different world than I did, and it is not that he is a troublemaker or drug addict or anything of the kind. He is a good ‘big boy’ now, he still talks to me (sometimes), although it feels like it is hard to reach into his inner thoughts, he is finding his way. In a manner that is quite different from especially my husband’s imagination of how the son should be going about, then the husband laments about this to me, which increases my feeling of failure, although I figure the boy just needs a bit more time, he will be a great success at some point. But he’d rather take the car anywhere than go by bike – I strongly prefer to take the bike anywhere I can possibly go rather than taking the car, he is, as I said, finding his way. And I am failing at being patient, letting him go at his own pace. What can I do about this? Keep calm, quilt on, and have another go at the longarm for his quilt, hopefully without major catastrophes this time.


  1. I remember a friend on having a disagreement with her child said to her, remember please this is my first time being a parent to a child of xx years. We will both make mistakes. Think it was a marvellous way of looking at things. Best you all

  2. That's a lovely way to look at it, Irene. I will bear that in mind and try to be more kind to myself when I realize I am criticizing myself too harshly with regard of my parenting qualities. He's almost grown up now, anyway, so all I have to do is let go...