Sunday, December 09, 2007

Swimming Off Course

Mistake - (n) a fault in understanding, perception, interpretation, etc; blunder; error, misunderstanding. (Webster's New World Dictionary, college edition)
Unless you swim in a pool with thick, black lines painted clearly on the bottom, or which has strings of egg-shaped floats separating the pool into lanes, you can easily swim off course.

It's even easier to swim off course in a lake or in the ocean, where you have to gauge your direction based on your relationship to the shore, or with regard to a distant landmark such as a stand of palm trees or pines, or, perhaps, a dock or tower in the distance.

But even with clearly drawn lines on the bottom of a pool or well-defined landmarks on shore, you still can misjudge the currents or blunder into the next lane, discovering your mistake only when you crash into the swimmer coming towards you... or after you miss him by inches.

Perhaps you were swimming with your eyes closed, or you were pulling too hard with your left arm, or your goggles fogged up, or you let your thoughts drift... and, as your mind wandered, so did your strokes... until you discovered that you'd ended up in a place that you hadn't intended to be.

This is a rather small embarrassment to suffer (although the headache from a collision isn't always so small). Yet it's an example of the kind of mistake that we try to avoid in swimming... and in writing.

Usually, we strive to stay on course, to figure out a path (a plot) and hold to it, for fear of losing our way.

But why are we so afraid of swimming off course and losing our way?

What difference does it make, really, if it takes us five minutes--or five years--to find our way in our story?

Is the time spent learning what we need to learn a mistake? Are the years wasted, the effort itself worthless, simply because the results don't turn out the way we anticipate?

Each stroke that you take as you swim through your story--whether you stay in your lane or not--is teaching you something about yourself and your story that you never knew before taking that stroke.

You may even find, in fact, that making such "mistakes" is an essential part of the writing process, and that these "errors" or "blunders" reveal your story in new ways that were impossible to see before you swam outside your lane or off the course that you set for yourself.

We're trained from early in our writing careers--indeed, from early in our lives--to avoid making mistakes at all costs and to view mistakes in a negative light.

But what if... rather than fearing mistakes... we embrace them? What if we learn to see blunders as opportunities that allow us to go even deeper into our stories?

From such "mis-perceptions," we might begin to understand our stories in new ways, to perceive our characters and their struggles from a different angle, another view.

If we can change the way we think about mistakes, perhaps we can learn to see writing as a process of discovery rather than as a process of aiming for (and falling short of) perfection.

Shifting our view of mistakes in this way can help transform our revision process--whether it involves one draft or thirty--into a celebratory passage from understanding a story in one way to understanding it in a new way... and not merely as a chance to "fix" mistakes.

Sometimes swimming off course is the best way to find unexpected treasures. New insights and pathways, hidden from one angle, can suddenly appear illuminated from a different perspective.

Each time you worry about making a mistake, ask yourself why you're so afraid.

Is it fear of looking foolish, feeling ignorant, sounding dumb?

Are you more worried about what others think than about what you think?

Are you focusing too much on the end-product instead of on the process?

The key to writing, especially in the early stages of a work-in-progress, is to open yourself to whatever comes... to explore the world of your imagination without fear, without judgment... and to accept whatever is there... whatever you see... and get it down on paper.

That's what is so amazing about swimming off course.

Sometimes making a mistake is exactly what will help you find your way into your story.

Wordswimmer exercise:

Has making a "mistake" ever led you to a new discovery about your story?

Take a few minutes to reflect on your experience so you can see more clearly how making the mistake liberated you from an old viewpoint, a stale perspective.

If you'd like to share your discovery with other Wordswimmers, we'd welcome the chance to learn from your "mistake."

For more thoughts on learning from mistakes, visit:


Barbara O'Connor said...

Great post, Bruce.

Okay, I'll jump in and share a recent experience with being reluctant to veer off-course, but finally giving in.

I just finished the first draft of a middle grade novel. In my original vision of the story, one of the central characters was an adult (an eccentric, rather dim-witted adult). Since I spend a lot of time thinking about story before I put pen to paper, by the time I sit down to write, the characters are completely alive for me. AND - I hate, hate, hate to change anything significant once I dive in. (For instance, I NEVER change character names. I just make sure they're perfect before I start.)

As I moved along through the story, however, that character was bothering me. She just wasn't right. I kept going because that was the course I had started on, but the more I wrote, the more I knew I had to veer off course. I had to change something about that character.

That eccentric, dim-witted adult character turned into an eccentric, bright, and spunky child character. And it worked! Everything began to feel "right" again.

So, while this isn't necessarily an example of a mistake, it's an example of being more open to veering in new directions - swimming out of your lane.

Bruce said...

Your example is wonderful!

Not only do you show how a writer needs to be open to swimming in new directions... but you reveal the process by which you let go of one vision and reached for another, not quite knowing what you were reaching for.

That kind of reaching (in the dark) takes courage, and raises another question: how does a writer know when it's time to let go?

Maybe others will respond to that question.

Thanks so much for diving in!

Jack said...

Interesting to read more of Barbara's writing experiences.

I have to say that few of my original name choices seem appropriate by the time my character has revealed more of his/her self in the story.

Also, I've gone back and changed first-person stories into third-person limited at least twice, and thought they seemed better, but who knows for sure which, if either, was a "mistake?" Even if the final version is published.

Bruce said...


Names, as you suggest, often change in the process of creating characters. Does that mean the earliest name was a mistake? Or was it instead a step on the path to learning the character's true name?

Same for first person vs third person. Why should we say it's a mistake to write in one pov vs another... if, in the end, we find our story? Maybe the "mistake" helped us hear something different... that we couldn't have heard in the other pov?

And you're right... the question doesn't always end after publication, especially if, in the author's mind, a question remains about which pov 'feels' right.

It comes down to trusting your inner voice, I think, and, if you're lucky, your editor.

Thanks for raising these points.

Barbara O'Connor said...

And addendum to my post about veering off-course: I had a long conversation with my editor yesterday (after which we will be starting contract negotiations - woohoo). When I told her that that particular character had started out as a dim-witted adult but I had changed her to a child, she said, "Oh, I'm so glad you did. Children are so much more interesting than dim-witted adults."


Bruce said...


I feel like you've just announced the sighting of a new planet (filled with characters who I'm eager to meet). It's just lovely to imagine a new book of yours on the way.

In the meantime, good luck with the negotiations. (A contract is one case where, perhaps, making mistakes isn't the best way to learn things.)

RainWildman said...

An interesting subject, this mistakes. Who defines what constitutes a mistake? Who says there is any such thing as a mistake, or that they are, in some sense, a bad thing.

Is there any more creative 'person' than mother nature, who invented flying, the eye, swimming under water, and all sorts of other things... and what does mother nature rely on? MISTAKES. Evolution works by copying genes WITH ERRORS.

I think mistakes are the creation of publishers who think they will be unable to sell books if they do not conform to certain standards. And I think that the fear of making mistakes is creating 'mind-forged manacles' to be worn by all creative people.

Bruce said...

Thanks for sharing your insights into mistakes. I especially enjoyed the phrase "mind-forged manacles" as a way of describing how our own expectations--or fears--can ensnare us.