this is me trying

By Caroline Crampton,

Published on Aug 31, 2023   —   6 min read


There is a story about Oscar Wilde that I was told in my first week as an undergraduate that I am thinking about a lot at the moment. While he was a student at Oxford, Wilde became well known for the impossibility of his brilliance. All he seemed to do was socialise, spew forth witticisms and lounge around in beautiful outfits, yet he somehow also managed to deliver essays and poems of such astuteness and flair that after four years of such aesthetic idleness he graduated with a double first and won the Newdigate Prize for poetry.

How did he do it? By working tremendously hard in secret, so the tale went. When he finally said goodbye to his friends after a long night of elegant carousing, he did not head for bed as they thought. Instead, he studied and wrote furiously, often going without sleep so that in the morning he could once more give the appearance of effortless, even lazy, genius. And it worked: by the time he left university, Wilde was known internationally for his enormous intellect and supposedly extempore quips. A glittering career as a writer and public intellectual beckoned.

I don’t know if this story is true. I’ve never wanted to research it properly: it is too perfect to spoil with facts. It seems consistent with what I know of Wilde’s career post-university and his place at the vanguard of the burgeoning aesthetic movement, and that is good enough for me. When I heard it at the age of 18, it confirmed for me something that my insecurities had long suggested — that the worst thing in the world is to be caught in the act of trying.

Earnest and anxious from a very early age, I was by this time fairly familiar with being called a “try-hard”. I had also registered that these accusations only accompanied failure, not success. I was a try-hard on the sports field, where no matter how dogged my efforts my lack of talent always resulted in utter humiliation, but never in the classroom, where a freakishly sponge-like memory (now long gone) saw me regurgitating information I did not understand in exchange for good marks. Being told the Wilde story at such an impressionable moment merely confirmed what I thought I already knew: being truly good at something meant never letting anyone see the effort or the failures it had taken to attain success.

When I put the proposal for my first book out for sale, I found that the publishing industry worked on much the same basis. The whole process was very opaque, with little information about how it all worked accessible unless you had a friend or mentor further along who was willing to give you the benefit of their experiences. Seen from the outside, there were long silences punctuated only by dazzling announcements: a major deal, a place on a bestseller list, a film adaptation. The rest — the trying and the failing and the trying again — was kept out of sight, as if it never happened at all.

It was very rare, I found back in 2017, to encounter someone openly discussing that they had tried and failed to write or sell a book. Even once I had found a publisher for my idea and embarked on writing it, the Wildean impulse to make it appear effortless was overwhelming, even though I was a novice laboriously and chaotically doing it all for the first time. To be seen to try is to appear weak, perhaps undeserving. When so many people want to be writers and aren’t given the opportunity, it seems extremely churlish to dwell in public on the less-than-ideal aspects of the occupation. Much better to make the difficulties invisible and then emerge on publication day to bask in the good reviews, accepting any praise that comes with a knowing smile that says “thank you, I did all this without even trying”.

The eye of the storm of all this for me, these days, is social media. At a time when traditional arts coverage is stretched and dominated by the celebrities who keep writing books, for the ordinary author it is vital to have a way of connecting directly with readers. In the past I haven’t put the effort and thought into doing this that it merits. I used to use Twitter for work when I was in political journalism but let my account go dormant as soon as I had moved on professionally; I enjoy posting about my dog and my reading and my cooking on Instagram but I’ve never put in the consistent effort to make it a channel that potential readers might find useful or attractive. I consume TikToks in a lofi secondhand way (might write about this another day) and I don’t make them. Facebook, for me, is entirely about sourcing secondhand furniture.

When my first book came out, I popped up on social media a few days before publication and said “Tada! I wrote book. Please buy it,” and that was about it. The response was, naturally, kind but underwhelming. The rejections from traditional media are far less visible. On a social media platform, my post can sit there forever, visibly ignored. For a long time, the knowledge that this was an important part of my job that I was neglecting chafed against my desire never to be caught in the act of trying. Because what looks more like trying than repeatedly posting publicly about your work, asking people to pay attention to it, and being ignored? Much better to have success miraculously occur and then be able to modestly highlight it, like Oscar Wilde probably would have done if he’d had Instagram in the mid 1870s.

I do think that the architecture of the internet today encourages this hesitance to be seen to be putting in effort. Social media, as we all know but can never remember in those low moments, is just a highlight reel of the best days and the best news. Those who do post with the greatest success do tend to make it look very easy, as if setting up a camera for every shot so as to capture yourself “casually” going about your day and then editing it into a seamless, appealing package with a jaunty soundtrack isn’t a lot of work that once upon a time would have been done by a whole crew of specialists. I’ve mostly tried to cut too-perfect influencers out of my personal media diet, but I do keep those who periodically post their drafts and their outtakes; it is useful for me to be reminded that a polished end product went through a lot of iterations and attempts.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, because I’m entering a season of life and work in which I want to try, really hard, and I felt the need to set the scene for that. I am aware that writing about trying “too hard” is probably the definition of trying too hard. But: my next book comes out in spring 2024 and it took a lot of effort and soul-searching to bring it into being. I would like as many people as possible to read it. I don’t think I am someone who can be Very Online all the time any more, but I am keen on the idea that even people who aren’t in full-time education can benefit from thinking of their life in semester-length chunks. This coming term and next is going to be a time for me of looking out rather than in, and talking about ideas and work that I’m proud of. This mode doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m going to have to try hard at it.

This newsletter is a big part of that. I found that I couldn’t write to you like this while also writing a book that contained a lot of personal stories and big feelings, but now that’s done, I can be here again. If there are subjects you would like me to cover or questions you want answered, just reply and let me know. This is a space for things that I’m interested in and also what you’re interested in too. Suggestions so far have included: overcoming writer’s block, moving out of London, how to switch career into writing. It won’t be perfect, but then what is?

In the words of the literary giant of our age, Ms Taylor Alison Swift: this is me trying.

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