I… think this year’s going to be good?
I know that in the years of our suffering 202x we do not say such things lest we bring down the wrath of Roko’s Basilisk, but despite anxieties around life and the world and well-being and all, I’m still looking forward to the year ahead.
My new writing season is brand new. (Spring runs from January to May, in the absurd non-agricultural writer’s calendar I invented for my own purposes) Quicker than Blood/Bobbyfox is rapidly approaching the tricky transfer between making notes and writing little snippets of scenes to writing the final outline and actually digging into the first draft. I (like many authors) await the news from SPSFC (apparently pronounced SPACEFACE or SPACEFIC, now) 2023, where Mouse Cage is (for now) still in the running. (That may change by the end of the day – I think some news on that is pending!)
A lot of positive, happy things tied to my writing practice and career. The trick is to try and focus the majority of my attention on the limited scope of my writing practice and career, rather than letting my attention wander onto wars, political upheaval, economic collapse, and my attempts to deal with ongoing minor plumbing issues in my home. (Super minor – trying to get a water meter updated means I need to get someone to replace a stretch of piping, which turned out to mean I need someone to shut off water to the floor of my building, which turned out to mean that I needed someone to identify the non-standard industrial valve that is somehow in this apartment building, which meant that I had to contact the company that produced the valve to ask them what kind of key is used to turn it because my plumber had never seen one before, which meant that I had to help the plumber find the data sheet to order a key to…)
… Hey, let’s focus on my writing practice and career instead of that, okay? :D
I find myself discovering, through the art I’ve been doing (scribbling nothing impressive on sheets of printer paper, as per new year’s resolution), that there is a skill in my writing practice which has atrophied a little.
A core ability in improving your own skills, in writing, in art, in almost everything, is engaging in self-evaluation and self-critique. (But not self-criticism, that is something… quite different.)
It is not something we stop to do, or if we do, it often dovetails nicely with our personal anxieties – are we good enough? Can we make the things we want to make? Are we capable – and serves as a brake to slow us down. But self-evaluation and critique… it’s not really about that.
It is a process of uncovering your own mistakes.
Sounds appealing, right? Well, first, we have to re-evaluate what a mistake is.
People will airily declare ‘mistakes are learning experiences, mistakes are good, happy little accidents, fail faster’, which… no. None of those pithy phrases take away the sting of being a little kid and doing something you think is great, only for an adult or someone else you think really matters to say that what you did was a mistake. It doesn’t stop it hurting when you make a mistake that has consequences – someone’s hurt feelings, someone’s actual injury.
A mistake is a moment when you acted with a given intention, and in some way failed to fulfil that intention. It is a moment when you had a given evaluation of a situation, and you discover – sometimes calamitously – that your evaluation was wrong. And maybe the action you took based on that evaluation was just fine, perfectly executed, but because you made the decision to act on incomplete or incorrect information, you did the wrong thing.
These things, these moments, hurt. They make us question ourselves, they make us question who we are, whether we are living up to our images of ourselves…
Mistakes are serious business.
Which is why it’s important to understand that making a mistake isn’t a moral failing. Making a mistake is doing something that doesn’t line up with what you wanted for yourself.
Sometimes, that hurts. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Oh, I just poured orange juice into my bowl of cornflakes? That there is certainly a mistake, but why should it share a semantic and emotional resonance with some of the objectively worst experiences of my life?
A lot of people have a somewhat irrational fear of making mistakes, of the experience of ‘doing the wrong thing by accident’, and I am one of them.
Which makes trying to draw a picture extremely difficult.
Almost all artistic endeavours are built out of mistakes, because the gap between our artistic vision – the idea we’re working with, which is often more a feeling or sensation than a tangible blueprint to create an artwork – and the reality of what we have created – an actual thing, which may or may not evoke the feeling we sought – is huge. Vast. Inescapably large. And being unable to tolerate that gap is something that ejects almost all of us from our artistic practice at one stage or another.
There are those who are extremely mistake-tolerant – those who just do not care what their output looks like. They are those frustrating people who can churn out gazillions of mediocre things (or at least mediocre in our eyes) and yet view themselves as healthy, functioning artists with great skill. You may connect this, slightly inaccurately, with the concept of Dunning-Kruger effect. (Which while catchy, is possibly a statistical artefact rather than an effect.)
The actual fact, here, I think, is that being extremely mistake-tolerant tends to go hand in hand with not being particularly interested in interrogating and understanding the mistakes we have made. If a mistake doesn’t hurt, why obsessively pay attention to it and continually grind at whatever the mistake was until you can be absolutely certain you never make it again?
For the curious: I absolutely had zero mistake tolerance for a very long time. I have an evil inner editor, meaning that some sick part of me delights in denigrating my own work and searching for every flaw and magnifying it beyond all reason. My mistakes, thus, hurt me, and I became absolutely obsessed with eradicating them. At some point I got comfortable enough with my output to stop worrying so much about it, because the number of legitimate flaws I could find was continually shrinking. Until I couldn’t find any more.
… Except… it wasn’t about finding them. It was about making peace with this vicious inner editor inside me, and while I’d gotten a lot of flaws out of my writing, I’d also stopped looking for them. My inner editor had done all the looking for me – I’d never had to look. They just sprang out at me.
Trying to draw has created an absolute tsunami of making mistakes. Drawing a figure with legs about five times larger than the torso. Getting fixated on one part of the drawing so that it winds up completely out of scale with the rest – or, memorably, tearing a life-drawing figure I was sketching from a photograph in half. I started at one shoulder, worked my way down the side, the leg, the other leg, back up… and because I wasn’t paying attention to the entire composition of the thing, the figure’s shoulders wound up about six feet apart. As if split in twain by an axe from neck to stomach.
Part of me does not like making mistakes. But, armed with improved mental health, years of experience, and the fact that I used to make tons of mistakes while writing but I can write sort of okay now, I approached the issue of mistake-making with some new wisdom.
If I let making a mistake stop me from doing what I’m doing, I won’t do what I’m doing. I will stop. And if I stop doing what I’m doing, I will not learn.
With writing I lucked out slightly – I developed most of my early skill during a period of obsession with the practice of writing where making a mistake was an excuse to work harder and harder and harder until I collapsed, rested, then got up and worked again. I didn’t need mistake tolerance.
Now? Now I both need the kind of mistake tolerance that lets someone churn out thousands of pages of junk – partly because drawing requires the development of physical dexterity, which means repeated exercise is really valuable even if the results suck – and I need to recognise mistakes.
Which brings us back, at last, to self-evaluation and critique.
If I write a scene seeking a particular emotional outcome, and it doesn’t have that emotional outcome, I need to go back and figure out why. What mechanical piece of that scene didn’t work? Did I use words that were emotionally flat? Did the actions feel implausible? Did the work seem to foreshadow something else, so the expectations didn’t align with the desired scene outcome?
If I draw a picture of a foot, and it doesn’t look like a foot, I need to go back and figure out why. Is it the shape of the toe? The way the heel works?
The advantage to art is that there is a remarkably objective measure to use, which is, other pictures. Photographs. I can look at a foot – or I can even try and draw a foot from reference – and start cataloguing the differences between the foot I drew and the foot I wanted to draw.
Oh, I didn’t give the toes any toenails. Oh, I drew the sole of the foot flat instead of giving it an arch. Oh, I made the ankle all thin but the ankle actually looks way more solid than that – and wow, feet are freaking HUGE. Seriously. Your foot’s length is about 15% of your height, if you have roughly statistically average proportions. Not everyone does, because biology is probabilistic and people have many different shapes, but fifteen percent. Your head, your whole head from top to bottom, is about 13%. Your head is smaller (in length) than your foot. That’s nuts! That doesn’t feel right! I look down at my feet all the time, and they’re tiny! My hands? My HANDS are huge. (Hands are closer to 10%)
Wait. Oh. Oh, apparently this phenomenon is something called foreshortening, and it has to do with the fact my eyes are in my head…
And it is entirely possible for me to go on drawing figures with tiny feet and huge hands – and even huger arms and shoulders – because my gut feeling for how big a body is appears to be distorted by my perception of my own body. If I never looked at references, if I never had a plan for what I wanted to achieve, if I never evaluated what I did against what I intended to do, my mistake tolerance would be really high… and my skill development would be very low.
Because the first step is recognising a mistake. Self-evaluation. What you didn’t like about what you did.
The second step is self-critique. Working out the mechanics of how you made that mistake. With feet, as mentioned, it’s out of my distorted sense of what a body is.
Armed with that self-critique, that understanding of how I made the mistake, of what the gap between my intention and my actions was, I can start trying to work out what I can do to remedy that.
Because, that is the point of a mistake. The real point. And the reason it hurts so much.
A mistake tells you where something is lacking.
In my case, with feet, it is a sense of actual physical proportionality. I lack that. I need to gain that.
Early on in my writing career I made a lot of punctuation mistakes – a lot – which is how I wound up owning a shelf full of books on grammar and English and how sentences are structured. The pain of the mistake, while unpleasant, also served to focus my mind on the issue – it helped make me obsessed with it. Pain is there to make you pay attention. But, you don’t need pain to focus on something.
Mistakes don’t have to hurt you. You can be mistake tolerant, and simply choose to pay attention, rather than be forced into it like that.
I don’t have to wait for my inner editor to spring up and maul me to find mistakes in my writing, either. I can write something, I can examine it – evaluate it – and find a mistake. Or even invent a mistake by choosing something that I want to do better.
Mistakes show you where you need to do something differently. Almost all mistakes can be viewed in this light.
Make a mistake because you weren’t paying attention, and you accidentally dropped something? … That mistake is there encouraging you to learn how to pay more attention when carrying stuff. You need to remember that your hands are physical objects interacting with a complicated physical world, and gravity is a thing, so letting your attention wander introduces risk to the otherwise ordinary task of getting milk out of the fridge.
So, as you can tell, even if I am very, VERY far from drawing anything I’d want to show anyone (although you may see things pop up on my corkboard, via twitter), making the attempt to work on my drawing and art skills has provided a lot of illumination and inspiration to this writer.
So, I’m going to continue trying to juggle having high mistake-tolerance, so the mistakes don’t hurt, while still paying a lot of attention to those mistakes, so I don’t miss opportunities to get closer to where I want to be.
I hope you all have a wonderful month behind you, and ahead of you, and that the information your head is (roughly) a mere 13% of your height if an adult but if you’re a child it will be considerably more is useful to you, and that life treats you good.
And, as ever, thank you so much for your support for and interest in my writing.