The Benefits of Doing it Wrong

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“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
–Frederich Buechner

My writing style is sometimes described as “confessional” and that seems about right. I want to be honest and vulnerable in my work. When I sit down to put things to paper, I don’t hold back in that first draft. I put it all down there. The second draft is where I ask myself whether I really want to have “all that” hanging around the eternal character of the Internet.

I always say that that Internet has a short attention span but a long memory. And the older I get, the more I post, the truer I find it to be. We have to be careful, I tell myself. We have to be wise, or, at least, we have to try.

A nice thing about having my memoir published is that it has had some softening effect on me as a writer. If I’m doing it right, so to speak, I’m hoping to default to a position of humility. If I’m doing it right, I’ll know at some deep level that this “accomplishment” doesn’t suddenly make me a better person, a better writer, a better anything. It’s merely a reflection of the person who wrote that book. I hope against hope that person is good and true and vulnerable and seeking wisdom. Sometimes, I think I get close. Most times, I just fail, and that’s not a surprise. Here is the world, says Frederich Buechner, don’t be afraid.

The not so nice thing about having my memoir published is that it also has a hardening effect. To put work out into the world, especially the confessional work of memoir means that I am leaving myself open to criticism and review in the most vulnerable and risky way. This is just part of the business of publishing. If I wanted to remain injury free, I’d leave my writing in a box under my bed until I die. So the advice to young writers is always to let the negative, critical reviews roll off one’s back, as though we wear a tortoise’s shell while reading responses to our work. But what if the critique reaches the soft places, at the elbow or the knee, at the neck or the slim space at our sides? I don’t want to be made of stone.

A discerning man, when he eats grapes, takes only the ripe ones and leaves the sour. Thus also the discerning mind carefully marks the virtues which he sees in any person. A mindless man seeks out the vices and failings … Even if you see someone sin with your own eyes, do not judge; for often even your eyes are deceived.
(St. John of the Ladder, Ladder, 10.16-17)

This isn’t just an artist’s problem. We’re all at risk for injury from judgement and criticism, even those from people with “good intentions.” Those friends (and strangers) who just want to make sure you’re “doing it right.” Well, here’s the thing. It’s unlikely I’ll ever do anything “right” or “well” enough for everyone who has an opinion on the matter. This is where I have to live, whether it regards my writing, my publishing, my parenting, my housekeeping. Dwelling in that reality pulls me back from the edge after hearing a bit of criticism, most of the time. I try to remember in those moments that we’re all struggling here.

One thing I hope, is that this helps me to be mindful of what I say to people who are brave enough to share their work, their writing, their parenting stories, their housekeeping tales. I keep that tender injury close to me all the time, reminded of the pain of my inadequacy– real or perceived, whether self-inflicted or from outside arrows.

This is the world, I hear in my head, don’t be afraid.

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