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Beautiful Mistakes

Beautiful Mistakes

Publié le 9 févr. 2023 Mis à jour le 9 févr. 2023 Culture
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Beautiful Mistakes

Translator: Austin Wagner

Workshop Diary 7

 

There’s always that typical interview question: what are your best and worst qualities?

And there’s always the typical answer: I’m a maximalist.

Please don’t ever give that answer to that question. Even if it’s true. I’m not joking. Seriously, not even a little. I know too much about maximalism for it to be funny.

“You need to be getting A++’s,” my father always said about school. “A+ is the bad student’s minimum.” And when I did manage an A+, it was considered a given, no pat on the back for a good report card – which happened frequently, not because I was particularly diligent, but because I could cram an immense amount of material into my short-term memory and then forget it all later. If, on the other hand, I got a B (or worse) on an end-of-unit test, out came the speech about the A++’s, about going beyond the class material, that way no question will ever surprise you, that’s real preparation.

Aiming for something which is unattainable is an especially cruel standard. Nobody gets A++’s in school, no matter how hard they grind. Not to mention designating the absolute possible maximum as the “bad student’s minimum.”

It’s no wonder I became I maximalist. And a ruthless one at that. Setting ourselves unattainable goals is a punishment of Sisyphean proportions.

Because what is writing if not utter failure in the pursuit of perfection? Somebody once asked me why I punished myself by choosing a profession where there is no objective standard, where it’s impossible to achieve the perfect text. There are much more measurable professions: if an accountant successfully balances the accounts, there can be no doubt they did a good job. But something as subjective and unmeasurable as writing – and which of course has no business being measurable, like in the famous Dead Poets Society graph – really does seem like punishment for a maximalist.

You can grind away, but you can never know if you’ve done enough. A merciless standard, you could say, but this is exactly where its freedom lies: if you know the perfect text doesn’t exist, then you don’t need to strive for it. Like a get-out-of-jail-free card for your own expectations.

For a long time, my writing went straight to the drawer. I didn’t care one bit about what I did being “good” or “bad,” I didn’t pin any expectations to it, whether external or internal – the latter are the worst, really. But after several years I decided I wanted to take writing more seriously, and that’s where the compulsion to do better kicked in.

Here’s what your path as an aspiring writer looks like if you want to get better (and not just ask your partner or friends for biased confirmation that you’re a contemporary genius):

You show your writing to strangers, you listen to their feedback, you list the mistakes.

You write something new.

You bring it to workshops, writing circles, camps, and ask for more feedback.

You cry in the bathroom. Then you write something new.

You ask for even more feedback, especially from people who have had good observations before, who didn’t brush you off with an “it’s great, best of luck,” but took the trouble to leave one hundred forty-five red-penned comments on your ten-page text.

You’re no longer crying in the bathroom, you understand how useful this is.

You right something new.

You submit it to a few competitions, you send it to a few journals.

You cry when you’re rejected, decide to become a gardener or a barista instead, but then you write something new, you keep workshopping.

One magazine accepts your story. You do your happy dance, then you get the editorial comments: there’s so much red that you don’t know why it was even accepted.

You get used to looking for mistakes. You train for it. By the time you have your first publication in your hands, all you can see are the mistakes. No matter which page you open it to, you trip over a typo or a clumsy sentence. You hide the magazine under a pile of unopened letters.

You write something new.

You look for new mistakes.

You write something new.

You look for new mistakes.

You write something new.

What I just sketched out is the work of years, decades. I am eternally grateful to those devastating writing circles where I began – we didn’t stroke each other’s egos, we said what was wrong with a text, politely, but without sugarcoating it. The brain is quick to catch mistakes. All the more so if it’s the brain of a maximalist. And the longer you spend in the feedback-crying-writing something new triangle, the quicker the catch. According to one study,* it takes five positive comments to balance out one negative comment in terms of what the brain focuses on, what it retains most clearly, what we identify ourselves with. But nobody goes to workshops to get positive comments, they go for constructive criticism. Don’t expect praise from an editor either.

By the time I got to my first novel, I’d fallen in love with maximalism. I felt like it was the only skill I had. I don’t consider myself “talented,” whatever that even means, just really bloody persistent. I’ve always felt this way, that’s what I know, that’s my strength: to be as persistent (stubborn?) as a mule. To write something else, write something else, write something else. After so many years, looking for mistakes is like searching for buried treasure.

Yes, maximalism has its benefits, it gets you results, it can help you develop. In hindsight, it’s easy to feel like it’s our only tool. But maximalism isn’t just about doing our best, or honest work, or persistence. It’s a deep, elemental dread, the constant anxiety that no matter what we do, it will never be good enough, it will never be enough. It’s either the most perfect possible outcome, or utter failure. Nothing in between.

But that’s not what writing is. When it comes to a novel, we are juggling an infinite number balls with an infinite number of possible bad throws or catches, and the maximalist can’t let a single ball drop.

But they will. And not just one.

Accepting this is completely freeing.

With the right skills, a writer can keep a majority of the balls in the air, and this is usually enough. Because if I flip the question around, and think about what I expect from a text as a reader, the word perfection wouldn’t even cross my mind. Instead, take risks. Be bold. Wild. Curious. A little crazy. Move me. Give me something I’ll remember years from now, something that keeps me up at night. Reduce me to tears. Impress me with your wit. With something I’ll drunkenly read out loud to my friends. Show me something important to you. Be honest. Be real.

If I would have been encouraged to think more about risk-taking and less about meeting requirements as a child, I wouldn’t have had to spend so much money on therapy.

Before the empty first page of every single novel, I have to once more let go of the pursuit of perfection. It won’t be there. I’ll rewrite it. It still won’t be there, but I’ll rewrite it again. It won’t be there when I’m done either, and that’s okay. Absolutely okay. Writing isn’t about A++’s and perfect students.

I usually start to write something when I feel deep down that I need it, and just like it is, with all its risks and craziness and wildness overcoming my fear of being graded. When the urge to tell a story shoots down the anxiety. When I accept that I’ll drop a few balls, and I don’t care, even when they crash down on my own feet.

When I’m ready to make beautiful mistakes.

 

 

*Losada, M., & Heaphy, E. (2004). The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 740–765.

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