I was looking at some of the newsletters I wrote for last year’s National Novel Writing Month, and I hit upon the one where I talked about screwing up that evening’s dinner. I hadn’t really read it since I’d written it, so I’d actually forgotten about how I’d burned the samosas, and about how I’d accidentally derailed my evening fast (I was big on 13-hour fasts for some reason last fall). As I thought about it, I realized that it was great that I’d forgotten those moments, because it proved the point I’d been making:
“#NaNoWriMo is a long month. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to have off days. Don’t let them get to you. Don’t shrug them off entirely, mind you—if you know you haven’t done your best, you should push yourself to do better the next time, rather than start convincing yourself there’s never going to be a next time and why did you ever think you could be a writer and maybe you should just quit.”
Those mistakes I made back in November 2018? They didn’t make any real difference; I got on with my life, and here I am, pretty much exactly where I’d have wound up if I’d cooked the samosas perfectly and hadn’t scarfed those two late-night Malomars.
One thing I probably would change about what I wrote back then, though: I’m not so sure I’d say “you should push yourself to do better the next time.” That’s because of the insights I’ve been picking up from W. Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game books, which I’ve talked about in a few of this year’s #NaNoWriMo newsletters. Particularly the notion that when you push yourself to fix your mistakes, you risk getting caught up in the process of “correction,” and that can impede your ability to just do the thing right.
So how are you supposed to get better, if you don’t push yourself? As I wrote in yesterday’s newsletter for premium subscribers, Gallwey seems to advocate a process of visualization and observation. Using our writing practice as an example, you can imagine, before you start writing, what you want to accomplish in a scene, or a section of your non-fiction narrative. Then you write to that vision, without judging yourself as you’re writing. You can notice what’s happening, but just keep writing.
Later, you can look at what you’ve written, and consider how accurately it reflects your vision for that scene. If you nailed it, congratulations! But if it doesn’t line up with what you wanted to accomplish, don’t worry. Just go back to your vision, and try again.
(This is awfully simplistic, of course, and it doesn’t take into account the possibility that you’ll see, in those pages, new possibilities that actually transform your vision, or at the very least help you come to a richer understanding of it.)
There’s something else I want to mention, something unconnected to the Inner Game philosophy, which is that whenever you “mess up,” whenever you have a less than perfect writing day, it’s because you were taking a risk. Even if you’ve been writing for years, even if you’ve been writing similar stories for years, you were venturing into new territory—why wouldn’t you expect to make a misstep or two along the way?
And, again, the good news is that you can set that “mistake” aside and return to the challenge you’ve set for yourself. If you’re willing to persevere until you’ve got a story that you’re ready to share with the world, then, as Thucydides says, “Luck favors the daring.” The longer you keep at it, the more you’re able to see your story clearly, the better you’ll be able to set it down in words, and the more clearly others will be able to see something in your story that speaks to them. (It might even be the same thing that drove you to share it with them. Or it might not! Life can be full of surprises like that.)
So if you’re writing today, whether it’s for NaNoWriMo or for a story you’ve been grappling with a lot longer, don’t be afraid to take a big chance. If the scene you’re about to write intimidates you emotionally or intellectually or in any other way, refuse to let that fear stop you from taking that material and making it your own. You might have a breakthrough today, who knows? And if you don’t, there’s always tomorrow.