On Periscope today, Sonya Philip talked about mistakes and failures being problems to be solved and that they are not personal failings. (Of course, we’re talking about creativity here. If you critique poor old Aunt Helga’s fishnets in her hearing, that might be a mistake of gossip-location-choosing and maybe a failure to be compassionate. We’re talking about doing and learning your art.)
If you sew your dress together in the wrong order so that you can’t sew the shoulder seams, sure, that might be a technical failure, maybe. But it doesn’t mean you’re a failure, or even that you’re a bad seamstress. It means you’re working. Learning. Getting better.
If you write a book and fail to put in conflict (HELLO, MY SECOND NOVEL DRAFTS ONE THROUGH FIVE) it doesn’t make you a bad person or a failed writer. It just means you’re working.
A listener of Sonya’s Periscope mentioned that students love seeing instructors’ mistakes.
Now. You know I talk a big game about how utterly terrible my first drafts are. Every writer says that. I’ve seen other writers’ first drafts and they may have typos, but they’re fine, but I AM NOT LIKE THEM, MY DRAFTS ARE NOT FINE.
They are shit. (Anne Lamott’s Shitty First Drafts spring to mind.)
I’m going to prove it. I’m going to plop down a piece of writing here to show you what a working, professional, well-reviewed writer’s early draft might look like.
Matty, eleven years old, boards the city bus his mother drives:
Today, Matty stuck his fist out, though, and that was nice. The fistbump. It was almost the same as a kiss, Fern thought. At least on these streets, it was. Matty had picked it up at school, and she’d liked it.
“How was your day?”
“Fine,” he said.
Matty always said fine. Even when his eyes were tired, even when they got that hunted look that meant someone had been picking on him at recess NOT THAT SMART NOT THAT GOOD AT ANYTHING BUT LIKES PLANTS? , he still said it was fine. He swung himself into the seat that Fern always kept for him by putting her coat over it. Funny, how there was obviously no one in the seat.
HOLY CATBOX – SOMEONE TAKE MY PEN AWAY I DON’T DESERVE TO HOLD IT
This is the same scene, final draft (shameless plug, The Ones Who Matter Most, April, preorder your copy today!)
“Hey, kiddo. You didn’t answer. Only twelve stops left. Wanna get pizza with me?” So I can break your perfect hopeful heart. While keeping her eyes on the road and her left hand on the wheel, Fern stuck her right fist out behind her.
“Okay.” Matty leaned forward and fist-bumped her. He’d picked it up from Fern’s brother, Diego, and on these streets, it was as good as a kiss. Matty, her baby boy who wasn’t a baby anymore. He was eleven, and someday he’d be a man, and he’d want to go by “Matias” instead of “darling Matty” or “mijo,” and then he probably wouldn’t let her kiss him good night, but Fern had this idea that she’d sneak up into his house on a ladder like the mother in I’ll Love You Forever and kiss him good night. Grown-up Matias would never know she’d been there, but maybe he’d sleep better because she had.
But all she had right now was this minute, and that’s just about all she had, so with her boy tucked safely in his corner seat, Fern made her coach dance.
Yep. That’s my voice. It takes me wandering through a quagmire of dreck, pushing through a draft just to get to my truck draft (the one that could be published if I got hit by a truck).
We keep going. YOU keep going. And we get, there, eventually, because we screw up. Not in spite of it. Fail harder, my friends.
Innovation is just someone getting tired of doing something one way and doing it another. – Sonya Philip
(And omg, Sonya has a pants pattern now.)