In Pursuit of Mistake

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In Pursuit of Mistake

Writing is a dangerous activity. These words come to me, seemingly of their own volition, as if writing wielded its own provocative powers. And I, always one to take the bait, retort: Please! What kind of danger could writing really present? Words on a page, as placid a threat as there could be. And yet, the eccentricities of language have always been made to stand trial—figuratively or literally—and I’m not just referring to the Baudelaires, the Flauberts, or the Oscar Wildes of history, whose writing has actually found its way into the courts of law.

The danger that belongs to writing is much more covert, more incendiary than it would seem. And it has something to do with the particular way that writing pursues risk when it is done well. I am often at pains to describe this brand of risk-taking to my students, in part because they have been trained—we have all been trained—to treat writing as though it were secondary to the primacy of thinking. Writing is transcription. You write what you think; thought comes first. But what if this hierarchy were not so immutable as it seems? What if, at its best, writing guides the writer to thought, rather than the other way around?

How to describe this experience with words, the way that words work on me, the way that I can think about something for hours at a time, but it is not until I sit down and negotiate with language in the way that writing demands, that thought finally follows suit. Maybe the best way to describe it is to approach it laterally.

So, a few weeks ago, I sat in on a portraiture demonstration by a master painter, Michael Siegel. He was three hours into the portrait, and this perfect face had begun to emerge from the panel on which he was painting, as though all that depth and dimension had always lived there, just waiting for oil and pigment to give it life. A woman in the class raised her hand and asked him how he knew what the next brushstroke—the right brushstroke—should be. His answer was this: “Everything I do is to some extent a mistake and my next stroke is an attempt to fix it.” I wrote it down when he said it, and it has stayed with me ever since.

Although we primarily work in different mediums, I understood something intuitively about what he meant. I think that painting must do for him what writing does for me. And if I describe it in terms of risk—risk that is productive of a certain kind of insight, which thought does not court in the same way—it has something to do with experimentation and also with mistake. Writing that sets out to prove what you already know; writing that works in the service of narratives to which you already subscribe; writing that aims to replicate thoughts you already articulate with perfect clarity in your head: for me, this is writing that will always fall short. I am interested in the writing that teaches you something new, that leads you into terrain that you have not already mapped.

And so, to claim that every brushstroke is “to some extent a mistake” is to propose a radically different way of engaging with problem and solution. Craft is then about responding to what is there, to what has been done, what has been laid out provisionally and tentatively, without the dogma that often characterizes thought. It is a way of understanding process that treats mistake as if it were essential, or maybe that it just collapses the neat distinction between necessity and contingency, turning accident and chance and misstep into the driving force of work. It is about pushing something to its limit without knowing exactly how you will extricate yourself from the mess that you create, but trusting that you will write yourself—or paint yourself—out of predicament. And then, maybe you are graced with that moment of deliverance, the unwitting gift that you never could have predicted from the outset.

May all of your writing be filled with this kind of mistake:









-Portrait by Michael Siegel

-Blog post by Jacqueline Abrams

2 Comments On This Topic
  1. Bill posted
    October 31, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    As Stephen King said: “I write to find out what I think.” It’s true. When we write, something about the words stuck to the page builds a bridge to the next thought. A far more complex and nuanced set of connected thoughts can emerge from merely thought thoughts.

  2. Lake Roberts posted
    October 31, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    A thoughtfully, engaging offering Jackie. Thank you. Most enjoyed it.

    Ive always liked Leonard Cohen’s speak about his need “to keep a kind of record”.

    Why, aren’t to many of our thoughts just a lose buzz and humming, unclarified collections of chatter in the box above our necks. But when those thoughts are seized upon and examined through the process of putting them down on paper. And then organized to whatever degree where able to make our ideas recognizable and meaningful to ourselves and maybe other people. Then its no longer just a stream of churning noise in the head. It can be in fact, a fully formed thought. An idea that can be related to. Maybe even useful to ourselves or hell! Maybe even someone else as well or even a group of people. And there it is, on the paper. Now starring directly at you. Asking to be heard. These thoughts.

    And now the bearer exists! Most artists, these jotters of thought and yarn. Seem either “possessed“ or “obsessed“ with this need to express there point of view. I know I need a good “shaking up“ and “jolt“ that a well written sentence can provide. Something to jar me into a clearer and more connected way of seeing the word. The sentences with that power are like medicine to my sometimes narrow mindedness or isolation from the world carrying on around me. I take comfort in the fact writing helps keep me anchored and saves me from floating to far away into my own universe by taking me into its . To expose our thoughts is a wonderful risk that thankfully many masters of thought, story and observation have done. But do I have a “right” or “voice” to fit in that on going conversation between minds? I guess Id have to keep writing to figure that out.

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