The Thing About Mistakes

Hello, readers mine. I’m struggling with something at the moment, so I’m afraid we’re due for another of those posts. You know the ones. The ones where I treat these pixel-born pages as a replacement for therapy.

Ironically, I’m at a point in my life where I’m open to therapy, but can no longer afford it. Typical, no?

I doubt this surrogate session will be as morose as many in the past. It’s not that the weight on me is less. In fact, the problems I’m grappling with right now are genuine ones. On the other hand, it’s harder to soak in misery over my difficulties when others have greater ones. Perhaps I write this post less due to the direness of my particular straits–they aren’t that dire as yet, though admittedly worsening–and more as a response to the weight of missed opportunities and wasted potential.

I ended up paying a lot more for this first pair of months in a new apartment than I anticipated. I hope to regain some of it after sorting out filing errors, but the long-dreaded descent is beginning. My professional failures have gone from psychological to financial in their impact. I thought I was prepared for this. I believed myself braced against the inevitable. As the old adage runs, it never rains but it pours: I had to cut someone off because they wouldn’t accept that I wasn’t able to help them, I burned myself out writing a certain chapter which I loved only to find few others seemed to share that love, and now I find that at least for the moment, I have savings for one month fewer than I expected.

All of which has crystallized for me that I’m not insulated anymore. Like everyone else I know, I’m now one serious setback from disaster. None of the work I’ve suffered for over the years has done anything to avert that.

Perhaps pouring out all this is just frightfully selfish–to wax melancholy about the weight of my past and the shame of my error. Still, I will write about it. I don’t ask you to bear witness or respect it. I need to have this out here, now, between me and me. I hope there may be some form of satisfaction in it for others, but if not… well, I am sorry to have written another piece that only speaks to me. I never go out of my way to do that, truly. I’ve always set about my work hoping it will resonate with others. I have to confess, though, that it seems I’ve never been much good at figuring what other people want to read.

There’s a particular theme about mistakes in most stories: of their making, and of how we return from them. Mind you, I’m not claiming those who play into this theme are responsible for where I’ve wound up. I may rail against it. I may scream and moan and fight fits of deluded denial in private. And by “may”, I of course mean “I do”. I know that’s a common thing, a human thing, and that the only shame is in succumbing to it. I write to you publicly, however, and as far as it’s my public face that affects all of you, it’s here I hope to be brave and honest. My own mistakes placed me where I am.

I can, and am often tempted to, point towards others. I might say this person or that offered me opportunities yet did not follow through. It’s more tempting because I can argue there were times that might be true. Yet, my own decisions brought me to the point of depending on those people.

Some of you have likely been following my ping-pong soliloquies these last few months with bemusement. Others, with justified frustration. If it seems as though I can’t decide whether I’m better off sticking with my writing in a time of extreme upheaval or confessing myself a permanent failure and surrendering to unskilled yet paid labor–further assuming I can find work in such labor, a bold assumption indeed–well, it’s because I am. I hope perhaps that in writing this I might find or create enough closure to make a decision and stick with it for once.

Perhaps not. How many times now have I declared that this was the end? I believed it. Truly, I did–every single time. I fear that some habits are exceptionally hard to break.

The beauty of this post is that it remains useful even if I’m completely unable to be honest with myself or you. I do swear that I’m trying. That said, that sentiment must have developed a certain bleak hilarity for those of you who’ve followed this blog the longest. Don’t I always swear that I’m trying? The question should rather be whether I’m trying to do anything useful, or merely indulging in a new movement–that latest in this endless ballet of false repentances ere the latest return-dive into my private sea of sunk costs.

I apologize if I’m straying from self-awareness into self-pity. I feel that I’m staying firmly on the side of the former, but intentions are not outcomes. Death of the Author, and all that.

This brings us to the nominal topic of tonight’s post. Plainly put, I’ve made a number of mistakes. I think by all indications my decision to be a writer was a mistake. That’s not to say I’m not good at it! I don’t consider myself the be-all end-all of any genre or medium, but I can comfortably say that I have skill. My mistakes are more often born from my ambition to push that skill than of any basic incompetence.

Note: “more often” is not “always”. I’ve still had some laughable fits of ineptitude over the past year or so.

I’m never quite contented with what I can do; I always need to push a little further, a little harder.

It would’ve been easier if I was just a bad writer. If I could just accept that I had no real talent after all these years, that nothing will be lost if I quit the craft–I tried to tell myself that around two months ago. Unfortunately, while I can lie to myself with some success, there has to be enough substance for me to put my cognitive dissonance aside. “My voice is not essential”; that was never going to be enough for me to persuade myself to stop.

I’ve never believed it was essential. If I had to resort to citing a straw-man at myself, there was never much chance I’d stick to the resolutions I meant it to argue for.

Let’s put aside the overarching question of whether I should never have committed to writing in the first place. That’s quite hard to answer and depends on too many things that I need to confront with in myself, first. It’s also purely academic at this point. There’s no fixing it if it was a mistake, no reclaiming everything lost to pursue that shimmering vagary. Let’s focus on the mistakes I made in the process. These, I think, are far closer to objective, and far more instructive for other writers.

First and foremost, and the very reason it’s so hard for me to accept the evidence I’m now confronted with: I knew that I was good enough at writing to have a chance. As someone who always wanted to think of herself as overcoming challenges while consistently failing or underperforming in every other challenge I encountered, I thus chose to make writing my challenge. A grand personal crusade to prove to the world that I could throw myself into a serious struggle and emerge victorious.

At no point did anyone ask me to prove this to them. Often, the only difference between courage and selfishness is whether anyone else needs you to do it.

My parents, especially my mother, expressed doubt in my ability to make a career as a writer. That surely didn’t help. I chose to take this as a secondary component of the challenge.

The more seasoned among you have long since seen where this is headed.

I’ve written before about all the opportunities I threw away to obsess over my writing–the potential friendships, the other experiences, the simple vibrancy I could’ve had during my college years. No need to belabor those points again. All I need add here is that this was, and remains, the trap. The more I gave up to focus on writing, the more my whole identity hinged on succeeding in it. The more impossible it became to accept that I’d gambled everything and lost. Going all in sounds audacious, heroic in that most reckless sense, until you actually lose.

We all know that even this post is an attempt to delay the inevitable. I’m hoping that somehow, someway, this is the final step needed to change the course. I’m always hoping for that. I’ve never written or shared a single sentiment without wishing desperately that, no matter how ill-suited, this will somehow lead to The Big Break.

That this time, everyone will see me.

I have never stopped wondering whether that ulterior motive has a kind of unquantifiable resonance. Wondering if the reason I’ve never succeeded is that everyone can sense how badly I want it. I have a vague idea that wanting something that badly is corrupt. Sinful, even. Does that come from anywhere besides guilt? I don’t know. I can’t remember. Somewhere along the line I’ve started losing pieces of myself. Never intentionally–just a little more. A little extra to stoke the fire. Just this once, and it will be bright enough this time that “they” have to see it.

Who are “they?” Now that I come to it, I find it’s easy to admit the ugly truth. “They” are whoever will give me what I’ve always wanted.

Framing my writing as a valiant effort against impossible odds was both justification for continuing and an excuse for defeat. For the longest time, it was easy to perpetuate that cycle. As long as I worked hard I knew that eventually I could overcome the mistakes I’ve made. I told myself that as long as I admitted them when it mattered, that would be the turning point. I sought out stories that confirmed me in this belief.

From this seed grew every problem that has ever plagued my writing. I’ve erased some of these flaws. Yet, more and more each day, I grapple with the feeling that it’s too late. I’m not sure when I passed the point of no return. Still, I believe I must have. What was the seed, then? Simple! I’ve always written, first and foremost, to affirm myself. I enmeshed my identity in every scene, every character, every individual word of every page. I’ve never gone out of my way to leave room for anyone else.

I know I’ve written about this before, maybe many times, but the memory of each time escapes me. There’s an echo of a sentence–something about how my stories don’t make an effort to engage readers. I know the post containing those words is, or was, somewhere on this blog. Did I delete it? I don’t know. I’ve become a creature of isolated moments. I’m so blinded by the rosy light of a past before my mistakes, and the charnel smog of a future up in flames, that everything between the two feels lost in the haze. In this moment I can barely even recall what I did last week. Sometimes I can’t help but hope that I’ll grow hazy enough to simply dissipate–neither die nor labor on. Perhaps a dim awareness of a breathing body, but not more than this.

I know that’s cowardice. I’m sorry for that. There’s a further irony: I wasted so much energy on making mistakes. Now that I know enough to have a chance of correcting them, there’s just not enough of me left. It would be easier if I knew that corrections would change anything.

That is, you see, the thing about mistakes. Their consequences don’t always fade once we admit we’ve made them. I can list more for you: I should’ve invested in professional cover art, I should’ve posted more snippets of book WIPs in more places throughout the years. I should’ve spent more time on forums for writers.

Hellfires, I should’ve sought out as many other writers as I could find–I’m very good friends, or at least a well-thought of acquaintance, with a plethora of artists and streamers and game journalists. But other writers and their communities, the people who by definition are interested in books? I suppose, for the longest time, I avoided seeking them out because it just wouldn’t have been unique enough to me.

I became a masterwork of uniqueness, an alien thing, and eldritch–but of course, now that I’m all chiral asymmetry and Escher-esque impossible geometry, I have the gall to be confused that people don’t want to experience me! I should’ve read more and sooner within my genre. I should’ve put more effort into the parts of being a writer that aren’t just, well, writing the story.

I’m working now on correcting these mistakes, but… that’s the thing about mistakes. You can acknowledge them. You can try to improve after the fact. But while writers like to put forward the idea that we’re all the protagonists of our own story, that’s not true at all. Protagonists have a certain central relationship to the sequence of events. If they take momentous actions, the world gives them a momentous response. If a protagonist corrects their mistakes, then in the vast majority of tales they’ll achieve the right results.

Can you imagine how quickly the audience would desert a story where the protagonist kept acknowledging and learning from their mistakes, but things kept going wrong for them? That sounds frightfully unsatisfying–besides, it’d be far too depressing for anyone to believe in it. A mistake is made, a lesson learned, and a character arc thus established. Stories need to be fulfilling for us to keep coming back to them. An unfulfilling story? It might have great literary merit as a character study or philosophical commentary, but it’s not the sort of thing you read a second time, nor share with your children when they refuse to sleep. Most protagonists receive certain things in exchange for due effort.

That will never be true for most of us. The thing about mistakes is that confronting them doesn’t necessarily save you from them. I see all the places where I’ve gone wrong. Will that prove to be anything more than a special form of masochism, as the last traces of my old hopes wind down into disarray and I am reduced simply to a vessel for the memory of things I could’ve done better?

The thing about mistakes is that you can realize exactly how many you’ve made, give all your strength to do better, and yet have gone so wildly awry in your course that you starve before you make it halfway back to the potential you started with. The fire flickers out. All is cold.

And all is cold. And cold.

And cold.


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