Home > advice -- not that you asked, giving thanks where it's due, Random Musings > Make Mistakes, Hang On, and Go back to the Basics

Make Mistakes, Hang On, and Go back to the Basics

When I woke up this morning, the world was consumed by fog. I could barely see a foot in front of me. Judging by the way it looked, it seemed like the fog would last hours – if not late into the day. And yet, right now, the sun has broken through the clouds. Most of the fog has burned off. It looks absolutely beautiful out. In another hour or so, all traces of the fog will be gone, except for a wet, dewy grass. That fog, which seemed thick and impassable, is resolved with the right combination of things: a lack of clouds and sun. Simple as that.

That fog reminded me that it’s not always about first judgments or getting it right the first time. Sure, as kids, that idea is pretty much throttled into our brains. “Do it right, so that you don’t have to do it again.” “Ace the test.” “Don’t fall off the balance beam.” “Always be on time.” “Don’t fall from that horse.”

In other words, don’t screw up. Which, honestly, is pretty impossible. And I say that as a person who was always late to gymnastics. I have fallen off many balance beams. Consequently, I’ve never fallen off a horse. I have, however, jumped twice – as a last resort (landed on my feet in a flip – I kid you not). Something my mom always taught me: when in doubt, hang out. It doesn’t matter what you look like. It doesn’t matter if you slip. Hang on.

There are two important concepts in that paragraph. The first one is wrong: don’t screw up. Screwing up is how we learn. Every time I’ve done something silly or even disastrous, I’ve learned from it. If I did it perfectly, if I knew exactly what I should do, what would I have taken away from the experience? Nothing, except I did what I set out to do. It’s the hard knocks, the forgotten lines, the oh crap – did I REALLY do that? moments that make us better. If you’re not screwing up, you’re not trying hard enough.

Messing up, making mistakes – it’s hard. Sometimes, it’s humiliating. Sometimes, it’s the emotional equivalent of asking someone on a date – only to have them give you a look and say no thank you. But, really, would you WANT to go on a date with someone whose eyes didn’t light up? Who didn’t jump at the chance and smile? Probably not. And if you just said yes, you are a masochist, darling.

Everything I write teaches me something. There are many times where it turns out to be what not to do, but each thing is a step closer to the writer I want to be. It’s a step toward appeasing my inner ten year old self, which is when I decided I wanted to be a writer. (No, you will never see that short story.)

For an actor, every rehearsal, every read-through, every take – it teaches you something. It shows you something about the character, about yourself. If you forget a line or miss a cue, it sucks. But it happens. And it’s a step toward getting it right.

That’s where the second piece of advice comes in: hang on. Let’s face it, when mistakes happen, it feels crappy. You beat yourself up. You question your motives. You question your talent. But if you’re asking those questions, it means you give a damn. It means that you’re not in it to get it right the first time. You’re in it to learn. And the people who hang on and keep learning? Those are the people who succeed. Because it’s easy to deal with the moments where it all goes right, but true character is often revealed when damnation hits the fan, and you find yourself in an Underworld of Doubts.

Everyone has doubts. The difference between succumbing and succeeding is how deeply you let them burrow under your skin. Doubts aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Staring them down, telling them to frak off, that is bravery. That is a sign that you’re here, and you’re hanging on.

And when that happens, here’s another piece of advice: go back to the basics. If a dancer is having difficulties, the answer is often waiting back in the studio. It’s often back at the bar. Sometimes, it’s a matter of regaining focus.

If a singer is having trouble, the answer may be in the scales. So you sit down and sing AEIOU for an hour. You go out and do karaoke. You get back to the singer that you are, while reaching toward the singer you can be. (And if anyone is up for it, I’m always available to belt out Disney songs, Adele, Sarah McLachlan, and at least one song from pretty much any Broadway show.)

If a writer is struggling with a story, the answer might be as simple as a lost thread (shout-out to Chuck Wendig). Pull out note cards and a pen. Figure out what went wrong with the story, and fix it. Everything that’s written can be altered. You cannot alter what you haven’t put into words, but you can change the ones in front of you.

We all make mistakes – and we all should. But all fog burns away eventually. All things dissipate with time. It’s how you handle these things that matter.

Learn. Hang on. Go back to the basics.

(The same thing, btw, goes for relationships. But that is another post for another day.)

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  1. March 23, 2012 at 8:38 am

    I’ll have to remember to get up with you for karaoke sometime; sounds like you have lots of fun with it.

    Some seriously good thoughts here. Many times I worked on something hard and kept getting results I didn’t expect when suddenly the answer came to me. That’s where the gold is. What I learned through the trial sticks with me and I then file it away for later reference. Definitely, error is from whence the keepers spring.

    Now if I can only get to the point where I don’t let the frustration get to me. To where I know that if I keep plugging away that I’ll get the answer, then I won’t need so many aspirins. LOL.

  2. March 23, 2012 at 9:04 am

    In my day job as a technical writer, I recently suffered through a screw-up of MASSIVE proportions but the lessons learned from this event ended up in a Powerpoint deck I sent out to my colleagues as a best-practices guide. It ended up being the most successful failure I’ve ever had.

    Ironically, your advice to go back to basics is also something I just did with my current WIP… when the writing felt flat, I went back and examined my characters and decided THEY were flat. I changed things, tweaked their back stories, exacerbated their faults and BOOM! back in business.

  3. March 23, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    I’ve always been good at the making mistakes part, but no so good at the hanging on. It’s when I told myself that I was going to be a writer NO MATTER WHAT that I learned what I was made of. At the first bump in the road I had to confront that commitment. Was I going to bail? Or was I going to keep trying? I’ve been hanging on ever since.
    This is great, Ali. 😀

  4. March 25, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    Ali, I enjoyed this quite a lot. There are many references to this concept in poetry, prose and song, yet it obviously can’t be stated often enough. People still strive for perfection which dooms them to failure – neither of which are real. And, by the way, I would love to change my license plate to 24601 and plan to name my next cat Cosette. 😉

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