mistakes were made

Over years of writing, making art, arranging furniture, solving problems, learning a new language, and teaching, I’ve become a mistake aficionado, a blunder buff, a faux pas fan with a mission to give mistakes a better name.

A mistake is an unexpected opening, a sudden fault line in the pathway. An accepted mistake is an unplanned chance to bring more creativity into the writing process. By allowing errors, we invite the unpracticed and the unforeseen to participate.

“She had an unequalled gift, especially pen in hand,
of squeezing big mistakes into small opportunities.”
Henry James

One day at a friend’s office, I struggled to navigate a complicated online login process, growing more and more exasperated. “Argh!” I (actually) said. “How many mistakes can I make?!” He looked up from his computer and said cheerfully, “LOTS!” Determined not to be irritated, I said, “Well, the trick is to get over it and move on.” He said, “No! Mistakes want to be made. I mean, imagine if you were a mistake. You’d want to have an existence.”

So. Mistakes exist. Always have. Always will. We can resist them and diminish their value, or give them room and, in so doing, alter the flavour of their definition from bad to hmmm. Hmmm implies interest, with judgment in abeyance, at least for a moment. A hmmm can much more easily become a work of art than something considered to be bad.

“Those who make no mistakes are making
the biggest mistakes of all —
they are attempting nothing new.”
Anthony de Mello

I have a bulging compendium of quotes and stories on the topic of mistakes. I keep them around to remind me to practice pre-forgiving my miscalculations. This is one of my favourites:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the ‘quantity’ group: fifty pound of pots rated an ‘A,’ forty pounds a ‘B,’ and so on. Those being graded on ‘quality,’ however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an ‘A.’ Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

David Bayles and Ted Orland, in their book Art and Fear

Not every brilliant occurrence can be planned. That’s the whole point.

On another day, that same friend of mine and I were talking about a new project, and I (being me) brought up a way we could systemize it. He considered this seriously. “No,” he said, “Let’s not have a system. Let’s consciously make room for the contrary.”

So make room for mistakes. Let the blinders fall away. Reclaim the peripheral vision of miscalculation. Envision more.

You see your goal. You aim for it and move toward it. You glimpse the unplanned rushing in for a sideswipe. You stumble without resistance. You learn to learn.

Mistakes are made. And your art flourishes.


Related reading: Defending Stupid

5 comments to mistakes were made

  • I keep being reminded, with mistakes and snarly critics and playground scapegoats, how much things change when we stop resisting and instead sigh and accept. So much easier, too.

  • This reminds me of the movie, “Under the Tuscan Sun,” where a student of Frances’ says, “She said, ‘Terrible ideas are like playground scapegoats. Given the right encouragement, they grow up to be genuises’.”

    Mistakes have indeed gotten a bad rap, as I believe they’re educational tools. There’s a reason for the saying “You learn from your mistakes.” It’s the smart person who pays attention; it’s a loss for those who don’t.

    Thanks much for this! If it weren’t for Facebook, I may not have found your blog.

  • Tracy

    Excellent article! A great reminder to just forge ahead, ignoring the snarly critic in my brain.

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