I am Thankful for Mistakes
This week as we give thanks for all of the wonderful things in our lives and celebrate with family and friends, I started to think about my writing life. More particularly about how my writing life might be improved—how all of our careers might be improved—by an attitude of gratitude.
Throughout school we learn to write, so by the time we graduate, we figure we have a pretty good idea of how to write. But do we really? The shift between school and a professional level of writing is like the difference between school band and a professional music career. In both cases, there is room to grow, to learn, to get better.
I think it's when we forget about this quest that things become more difficult for us as writers. We need to give ourselves permission to relax a little and enjoy the process. I mean, if you decided you wanted to play an instrument and you signed yourself up for piano lessons, you wouldn't expect to play like Glenn Gould next week—or even next year, for that matter. You would practice. You'd put in your hours. You wouldn't do it because you thought you'd be able to play like Glenn Gould. You'd do it for the fun of it. Because, while learning a new instrument is work, it's also fun. That's why we call it playing an instrument. But we expect much more of ourselves as beginning writers. We expect to write like Hemingway, or Bradbury, or Stephen King. But what we should do is just relax, play around with the words and the ideas, and make mistakes—lots and lots of mistakes. Try writing it one way and if you don't like the results, then try something else. Make the mistakes. Learn your strengths and your weaknesses. Find your own, unique voice.
We need to give ourselves the gift of allowing ourselves to make mistakes—without judgment. I mean, you don't judge every wrong note you play when you learn the saxophone. If you put yourself down every time you make a squeak, you'll never learn to play. Just notice the mistakes and keep going. Next time through, try writing it a different way. What works? What doesn't? Why? Do you see just how large this gift is? When you are able to separate yourself, the person, from the written work, you'll learn so much from those precious mistakes. And you can be thankful for the mistakes because they bring you so much closer to the writer you want to be.
In order to be a great writer, of course, or any writer at all, for that matter, we have to put in our time—pay our dues and practice. We have to sit our butts in our chairs and write. Like the cellist who will never get better without taking the time to play, the writer will never improve if he doesn't do the work. No amount of talking about being a writer or critiquing or reading will get you there. It's all about the hours in the chair.
One good side effect of this, though—regular hours in the chair lets the muse know where and when to show up.
Besides spending the time writing, I've learned that when gratitude becomes a daily focus, amazing things start to happen. I've seen this in my own life over the past couple of years. So now I want to extend this to my writing career. But what do I mean? How do you do it?
- Make a list of the things you love about writing. Why do you do it? Why did you start writing? What makes you keep going? What parts do you absolutely love about the process?
- Pick three things that you are most thankful for in your writing life. What are the three best things about the act of writing?
- Write these three things on a piece of paper and tack it to your monitor where you will see it every day.
- Get a stone, ring, necklace or some other symbol that you can carry with you throughout the day. Every time you touch this object, think about how grateful you are for your writing career. Close your eyes for a moment and think about what makes you happy. Maybe it's that feeling when the words just pour out onto the page and you feel like they're coming from a different place—like you've tapped into something bigger than yourself. Imagine yourself writing, the words just flowing through you. Let yourself feel the euphoria. Experience it as if it were real and happening to you whenever you touch the object. Get into the habit of doing this several times a day. At best your writing will flow better. At worst, you will spend several minutes a day feeling truly happy and content with your life.
So what's it going to be? You can go through your writing journey feeling like you'll never get anywhere—you'll never be one of the greats—you'll never find that one right story when all the planets align and something like Harry Potter will fall into your lap or pop into your head while you're riding a train. You can count all the reasons you aren't as good as some famous writer. Or you can spend your time feeling good about all you've learned and the progress you've made. You can be happy that you had a good session yesterday and confident that you will again tomorrow. You can enjoy the process.
The top three things that I'm grateful for:
- All of my wonderful writing friends—those who critique my work, those who argue with me for hours over comma usage, and those who just let me vent when I'm having a bad day. Yes, these friends are any writer's greatest asset and I'm forever grateful for my writing buddies.
- Unfinished projects—even if my time is limited and I struggle to find time to work on my own projects, I'm so grateful they sit there waiting for me. My characters are so patient. They only occasionally wake me up during the night and prod me to get back to work.
- Those brief moments of flow when the words just pour out onto the page. It's as if the story is writing itself right in front of me. I cherish each moment and live for the next one.
Let's all give gratitude a try and see what happens. I don't know what will come of it, but what harm could it do? Let's spend the next year working on improving our attitude of gratitude and see where we are next year.