The Power and the Glory of Mistakes
I had one of those realizations yesterday that left me standing by the road, stopped, not breathing, silenced by truth.
I’d been walking and thinking about mistakes. A couple of months ago, a Facebook friend, Lisa Munley, had asked if I wanted a spot on her TLC Book Tours (writers and readers, learn more here: https://tlcbooktours.com). My memoir had resonated with her since she has a person dear to her who is adopted. I researched her company and saw what a brilliant idea she’d had—she helped writers promote their books online, but, as with almost anything, there was a price, and since writing the book had cost me so much, I couldn’t also pay for promotion. I told her this and she said she wasn’t trying to sell me a space: she wanted to give me one.
I have to tell you something obvious: it is so lovely to receive.
Lisa was going to promote my book for free.
Who needs to go for a ride in a balloon when your life inflates like this?
Yesterday the first review came out, and it was complimentary and well written. In it, the author, Ricki Jill at the Sketchy Reader (http://www.ricki-treleaven.com) also schooled me: “She is a very good writer, however I wish she'd stayed off Tinder a bit more while she was in New York City writing and used that time to edit because her book could use a good line editor or perhaps more beta readers. (Gosh darnit, Anne! Edit your freakin' book!) But then again it took her so long to write her story I bet she was loath to have anyone else read it, which is a shame. That also bothers me: She waited so long to write this important book.”
Since I have published that book, not a day goes by that I don’t think about the errors I know it contains. One of the early correspondences I had with my birth father contains a list of pages where he had spotted typos. I’ve had people write to me and call me to tell me about the errors they found.
And yet I refused to do anything about them. That’s not true. On the Kindle edition I added a preface:
This book contains typos.
For most of my life I have lived in fear of making mistakes when writing. As a teacher, I shamed my students in the effort of getting them to proofread their work more closely. This did not make the students better writers. It made them hate writing.
I have changed. I have realized that, as an adopted person, I am essentially a typo, and I now think these so-called errors are gorgeous. Who says what is right when it comes to language anyway? Is it more important to be perfect or to get your story out into the world?
I understand loving and honoring craft, but now I understand it’s okay not to be perfect.
People want me to clean up the typos because errors make them uncomfortable. Welcome to adoption.
The busted places are often the most filled with light.
It was a BIG deal for me to have something out in the world with my name on it that had mistakes in it. I used to be a college-level writing teacher. I used to care a lot more about perfection on the page. I used to lecture on the importance of caring enough about what you wrote to read it out loud and fix any errors you found. I would drop a paper a full grade for every typo. I was ruthless. I was going to teach those kids to be good if it killed me.
My focus has shifted. I would rather be purely myself and marked with imperfections than the person others wanted me to be and flawless. I feel very strongly about this and yet. And yet. If you sent me your book and it had a typo on this first page I would think if you didn’t care enough about your prose to get it right, why should I care enough to read it? And chances are good I would put it down if there was a second typo on the next page.
So what do I do? I want to live fully as a flawed person, but I also want beauty and truth in my life, and a sentence full of errors is not a beautiful thing. Unless. It is not a beautiful thing unless it is a sentence written by someone with broken hands who somehow miraculously got a few words scratched onto the page. It is not a beautiful thing unless it is a sentence written by someone who was too poor for school but who is desperately trying to communicate. It is not a beautiful thing unless it is a sentence written by someone for whom language was a thing that, all her life, had failed her, and now she was using the thing that had let her down in order to create a presence for herself in the world. Then the words themselves become miracles for they are songs to God and not words put together in a way outlined in Strunk and White.
That was how I felt about my book. It was a miracle I was able to write it. When you lose your mother as an infant, the loss goes into your brain as a body thing, not as a language thing, and so you are left with a story you can not tell people because it is a story that did not come with words. The fact that I was able to string together enough words to convey what it is like to be in an adopted person’s head (mine), was the most difficult and rewarding thing I have ever done. I told you my story.
I left the typos there not because I didn’t care but because after writing the book I felt like a marathon runner who had flung herself over the finish line. I did not want to go back and review a race that had almost killed me. I wanted to move on. I had finished. That was the point. I didn’t try to run the most beautiful marathon. I just wanted to finish it. The finishing was the beauty.
But again, this is complicated. While writing my book, I tried. I tried to write the best book I could. I worked on word choice, sentence structure, punctuation. I read it out loud to hear how it sounded. I wrote and rewrote and wrote some more. I effectively silenced the critic so ideas that had been trapped in my body for much of my life finally found their way out. I silenced the critic so much she stopped looking for typos.
Would I rather have a book that has typos or no typos?
So, why, as an educated adult, did I not take care of business and clean up my act?
The answer came to me as I was out walking yesterday in Santa Cruz. I heard in my head:
(Gosh darnit, Anne! Edit your freakin' book!) and I realized I was afraid to make my book error-free because what if it wasn’t good enough even when I’d made it “perfect?” What if a publishing company never picked it up or it never made it out of the cheap seats? What if it faded away in the world of memoirs never to be seen or talked about again? What if I wasn’t good enough?
I was punishing myself by not fixing the errors. I was reinforcing my belief that as an adopted person I was inherently flawed since even a mother didn’t want to keep me.
I went home and got to work. Six hours later I was hallucinating. I saw a man standing next to me in the kitchen and so I stepped away from the computer after clearing, not the four typos I thought were in the book, but what felt like the four thousand typos I’d found. I probably missed a bunch, too, because seeing straight and hallucinating don’t go hand in hand.
But I did it. I showed myself I can want to be excellent. That I can go for it. Whatever it is. That I can be both relinquished and excellent. Not even that. Relinquished and okay.
I think about high school me, afraid to try 100% in just about anything because the fear of failure was bigger than the fear of mediocrity. If I tried and failed I was back to square one: the child who wasn’t good enough to keep. This is the craziness of the relinquished brain. This is why social workers and therapists and parents need to read books such as The Primal Wound so they can be aware of what happens to a child when it is separated from the birth mother.
I worry that I didn’t catch all the errors. That I’m acting like everything is okay now, but that really isn’t it because somewhere, maybe on page 63, I said there instead of their or him instead of her.
Okay. Here’s the takeaway I got from all this: go for it, go for the top of the top in everything you do: use all your resources to get it right, and then walk away when you are done and go on to the next project. If someone shows you a mistake in the new version of the book, smile and say Oops and laugh and repeat the mantra you play not in your head but in your guts: Every day there is more love, more money, more creativity, more self-acceptance, more joy, more peace, more connection in my life, and every day I inspire others to have the same.
Just because I was born a mistake doesn’t mean I have to live like one. One by one I have been clearing out the things that make me feel bad about myself: people, jobs, habits, thought patterns, articles of clothing. This was the last big thing.
It's time to feel good.
Whole new story.