Thursday, December 13, 2012

On Making Mistakes

As a writer, as an anything, one makes mistakes. 
At the tender ages of oh, thirteen through twenty-four, I chalked every mistake up to someone else’s failings.  Then suddenly, at around age thirty-three, I experienced a complete one-eighty and viewed every bad thing that happened as completely and wholly my fault.  Now, I’m trying to find some balance.
In my first nubby little stabs at writing, my mistakes were probably similar to the kinds of messes most beginner writers make; lack of plot, missing descriptions here and there, characters that show up and disappear with no actual reason for existence.  Those are mistakes that we can learn to control and improve through revision.
But over the years I’ve learned that, unlike writing, life is harder to revise.   And while the content of my writing gets to be mine all mine, the way my writing is received can’t be controlled with the same dexterity.  No, when it hits the world, each reader will receive it layered with their own experiences, lack of sleep, nagging cold or biases against bloggers/professors/women/writers for children/married people/white people/mothers…fill in the blank.
A few years ago, during a rough patch in my marriage, I read Expecting Adam by Martha Beck.  I’d picked up the book because a friend touted it as having “changed her life.” 
I hated the book. 
With my face looking like someone who just took a big whiff of rotten olives, I asked my friend Shari, “What did you like about this book?”
Her eyes widened.  “It’s an amazing story of loving through the toughest challenges!” She was shocked by my distaste for something she’d loved.  “What didn’t you like?”
“Ugh!”  I shook my head.  “The author was so smug about her marriage!  Like her marriage was so perfect that she and her husband had developed a telepathy that could cross continents during a crisis!  Puh-lease.”  (I may have stuck my finger in my mouth for emphasis here.)
Yeah, so I recognize (now) that my reaction to that book was totally rooted in bitterness because of what my own marriage looked like at the time. 
Um, like, a whole lot of sour-taste-in-your-mouth-eye-rolling-jealousy kind of bitterness.  I actually called my friend in triumph after reading of Ms. Beck’s divorce and public revelation that she was now in a lesbian relationship.  “Ha!”  I sneered into the phone.

Shari waited me out in silence.
Not my finest moment.
Maybe if I’d read the book a few years earlier I would have loved it as much as my girlfriend had.  But I read it through the lens of my own experience, which is what we all do as readers and writers.
And this leads me to what may be one of the most important skills I want to hone, the ability to not take things personally.  Wouldn’t it be something to be able to easily deflect the criticisms of others?  To go on trying with just as much confidence regardless of the number of rejection letters one receives?  To discard ones own lens or accept that others are simply seeing through theirs?
In Toltec wisdom, there are Four Agreements:
1. Be Impeccable with your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love.

2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

3. Don’t Make Assumptions
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

4. Always Do Your Best
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

Since I first stumbled across these goodies nine years ago, I’ve grappled with different edicts at each new crossroads.  Right now, I am obviously working on number two because the idea that my own suffering might be self-inflicted is a revelation.  When a friend is crabby or an editor doesn’t like my work, they aren’t seeing my content through the same lens of experience and interest that I am.  Right, so I have a couple of choices; I can brood over that, obsessively try to come up with scenarios whereby I could magically change another person’s mood or point of view.  Or I could let that nonsense go. 
I can accept that some mistakes are mine to own, recognize where I went wrong and make improvements.  But I also have to viscerally embrace that many outcomes have little to do with my actions.  Instead, they have so much more to do with someone else’s circumstances.  And I can’t revise that.  I can only control my responses.  I can manage my intake of their response with grace and the knowledge that my reaction is just as warped by my own needs and influences as anyone else's.  The acceptance of this wisdom is essential, because to continue to try to change someone else’s perceptions, well that, that would be a mistake.

-Juliet Bond

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