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Friday, December 3, 2010

The Freedom of Mistakes; The Comfort of Confusion

When I used to supervise psychiatric residents, psychology and social work interns in their early efforts at psychotherapy I would tell them they should enjoy and make full use of their license to make mistakes. I would explain that mistakes are not all equal, i.e., violations of confidentiality, professional boundaries and patient rights were unethical and often illegal. I would advise them to seek out either me or another professional at the slightest glimmer of a problem in any of those areas.

On the other hand, mistakes in attempting to do therapy were unavoidable and actually positive because they provided opportunities to learn which cannot be gained in any other way. You cannot learn to do therapy by trying to avoid making errors. Treat a client with respect; show an honest interest in their well- being, and that client will forgive almost any blunder.

Writing is not so different. Early drafts are invariably full of errors and imperfections. You cannot write if you to stop each time an imperfection pops up or you’ll never get past the first paragraph. As long as you respect the process of writing, and continue to write regardless of the crap that shows up on the page or the screen at any given moment, mistakes you make can be corrected. I have started with the wrong protagonist, the wrong point of view and even the wrong murder. All mistakes are correctible except one.

The only mistake that will stop your writing is to stop writing. Writing, however flawed, can be revised. What is not written cannot.

As a psychologist and writer I have learned to value confusion. In terms of child development, Piaget described confusion is a sign that one level of understanding is no longer adequate for the current situation and a higher level of understanding has not fully come into focus. It’s also a sign that greater insight is on its way. Personally, when I identify the emotion I feel as confusion, I know I already am in the process of acquiring a something new. I find that comforting.

It is my personal plan to continue to keep making mistakes and getting confused for as long as I live.

How do you feel about making mistakes?


Pauline Alldred said...

I've believed for the longest time that confusion leads to creativity, and I'm talking about daily life as much as about writing. If a job seems routine with simple rules and the people you work with seem predictable, you're not living and working. You're treading in the same tracks every day and you're probably following someone else's idea of how you should do your job.

Jim Jackson said...

Although I may not feel great about a mistake at the time of its commission, I have found my deepest understandings have come through mistakes.

Only through failure can I truly understand what works well.

~ Jim

Warren Bull said...

When getting feedback from critique group members, as much as I like compliments, it is criticism that is most helpful.

Pauline Alldred said...

I've lost count of all the big mistakes I've made and that's not counting all the little ones. I found out, if you're in a position where most of the criticism you receive is negative, your learning curve is beyond what you could imagine.

Anonymous said...

I'm a perfectionist. I don't like to make mistakes. However, I've had a lot of practice at making mistakes. I'm darned good at it.

Although I know I must write badly to write well; and that if I begin, the words will flow; and that I love to revise but must first write something; I have to remind myself of those things over and over and over. I still want to do it right the first time.

Warren Bull said...

When running for president, Bill Clinton once counseled lukewarm supporters to , "Hold your nose and vote for me." Sometimes when churning out a first drat I tell myself to do something similar

E. B. Davis said...

LOL, Warren-I love when I get something right. But I don't learn as much as when I make mistakes. The problem is that reviewers rarely say anything when you get it right, so for a long while I was confused. Both positive and negative feedback is necessary to reinforce what you've done right and correct those aspects you've gotten wrong.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Warren! A saying that I've heard a lot lately is "There is no failure, only feedback". I think that could also apply to "mistakes". Maybe there's no such thing as a mistake. Maybe it's just something new to learn.