Mea Culpa, 1987-1997, a sculpture by Robert Bryce Muir, photographed by Russ McGinn, 2006.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about mistakes. What role do mistakes play in being a genuine human being? How do we forgive ourselves for making them, inevitable as they are, without letting ourselves become sloppy or irresponsible?
I make a lot of mistakes, and probably so do you. Fortunately, most of the time these are not earth-shattering. My friend Anna once noted to me that some of our individual anxiety really was silly. “We’re not going to do something so stupid,” she said, “that we’ll ruin our lives.” There are many things that contribute to this state of affairs—“maturity,” education, practical intelligence, family and friends who talk over our major decisions with us. Because I am lucky enough to have all of these things in my life, it’s true that many mistakes that we hear about on the news—playing with a loaded gun, driving while drunk, giving financial information to anyone over the phone—are not mistakes I will make. At least I hope not.
Though in this regard I take Bobby McFerrin’s song at face value and don’t worry–at least not obsessively–I do have some concern about the mistakes I make.
Recently, I heard from a former student of mine who has developed some issues dealing with his own perfectionism. I won’t go into detail about his story, but we had some interesting chats via email about how difficult it is to give up our expectations of being perfect, of striving for it. He was contemplating starting a blog to track his progress in this regard.
One thing that occurred to me is that perfectionism and blogging don’t go very well together. Either you will make mistakes on your blog or you will not be able to keep up the relentless schedule of posting. It’s relentless no matter how often or seldom you post, as long as you do so on a regular and fairly frequent basis. I often think of my boss back when I worked for the Penn Stater magazine, who would say to me, “I don’t need it to be perfect. I need it now.”
In the past several weeks, three blog errors in particular have been brought to my attention.
Error the First
One of these was indeed minor and easily corrected. In my post in response to Marjorie Perloff’s dissing of Rita Dove’s new poetry anthology, I got a guy’s name wrong. This happened out of sheer exhaustion at the end of a long day of work at picking apart Perloff’s article. I just copied the wrong guy’s name in reference to a book title. Although the (I think) significant issues I raised in the post got virtually no comment, someone commented that I had this name wrong. Grateful, I corrected it.
Error the Second
Also, recently, my father sent me an email letting me know that some of the timing and possible motivations I had mentioned about the bitterness between my grandfather and his father-in-law were a bit off in my post about Memorial Day. I had already discovered these errors as I had further researched this very family history for an essay I was writing to submit to a journal, where I am more careful. My father was nice enough to say that he had found the post “well written and touching” and that he didn’t think my inaccuracies negated the theme of the piece. Here, too, I could simply go back and update the post based on new information.
In fact, this raises the issue of how accurate we can and should require ourselves to be when looking into the past. My own memories of what I’d been told in the past betrayed me. I’d recognized my own uncertainty and gone back to my father after this post was written. I’d done a bit of online research. My father had also referred me to his cousin, Pete, and I’d had a long chat with him. Pete had referred me to his sister and to a pastor who once boarded at my great-grandfather’s house. I have not yet called them, though I will.
And so the truth that we understand may grow more and more refined over time. We can’t research forever, and there are some facts (especially about the distant past) that we can never fully know, though we are irresponsible if we don’t try. The creative nonfiction writer lives in this in-between space. We are constantly reminded of what we do and don’t know and of the unknowability of others, even perhaps ourselves.
And the Third Error
More recently, I made a slightly trickier-to-correct error—trickier because this was about the contested world of politics. After I posted about the Obama-Romney character issue, my friend emailed to say, that, oops, he had not actually seen a poster that said, “Vote for Romney. He’s the white guy.” I’m sorry, he said, but that “was my attempt at satire.”
Ah, that satire. I suppose that if a whole host of people believed indeed that the Martians were coming when War of the Worlds was broadcast on the radio in 1938, then it’s no surprise that I would think this poster real.
So, is there anything to be gleaned from how I made this mistake? It had even occurred to me that it wasn’t real. But, for one thing, I couldn’t imagine my friend taking time out of his busy life to create the visual that he had used to accompany it. Also, he frequently does photograph and post strange signs that he sees around town (and beyond) that are also frequently virtually unbelievable. Lastly, I live far from the Villages, and they take on an iconic status like that of the mythical Stepford. Too often, it’s possible for me to imagine the majority of the people who live there as completely alien beings.
And, of course, I was in a hurry, didn’t want to bother my friend with blog fact-checking, and needed to get the doggone post up and done.
I have since corrected this, too, but saying that someone created a satirical poster is not so strong as the possibility of seeing a real one. Sometimes the truth goes underground, and this is largely the case with racism these days. It is hard to catch someone saying something outright racist. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
This error also raised a fundamental question about the internet. I finally decided to just go back and change this entry, but should I have instead left the error and inserted a correction, acknowledging on that very page the original flub? I contemplated this latter option, which creates a public record of errors in our thinking, but decided that even this one didn’t change my overall argument, so could simply stand in its correct state. But what does it mean when the average reader (rather than someone who searches out the way-back, etc.) can’t see the evidence of mistakes?
Anyway, even though this misunderstanding also doesn’t negate my themes, it’s an embarrassing error, especially when I know that the right-wing makes so many of these errors intentionally. I’m supposed to be better than they are.
As I return to the classroom this week, however, and confront students in my creative nonfiction courses who are already asking questions about the roles of truth, embellishment, faulty memory, and differences of opinion in what they write, I am somewhat comforted by my own answer to them.
Context, I say, context is key. There are ways that we can indicate that we are honestly speculating, or that our work is based on perhaps-flawed memory. These things are different from an out-and-out lie, a self-serving misrepresentation, or pure sloppiness, and anyone reading the genre of memoir should understand this.
In fact, the genre of memoir is at least partially about how our memories change and shift, how fabricated they are, much less the written versions of them.
If you are writing about a famous person (as I sort of was with the presidential character issue), the standard is more journalistic. I should have called and asked my friend before I mentioned his poster.
Still, a personal blog is not journalism. I at least give myself that out. When I was contemplating starting this blog, I worried about the untested nature of the work that I would put out there. My brother, a long-term blogger (albeit of a less personal nature) said to me, “Think of it as a rough draft.” There was wisdom in that, and it allowed me to go ahead and get started. Yet blogging is also there for public consumption and is not labeled “rough draft” on every post.
I feel a deep responsibility for what I post. I never post anything intentionally misleading, and if it’s controversial I usually get at least one friend or my husband to read it as a litmus test. They sometimes point out claims they think are too strong or ask me to clarify some point.
And yet, and yet… I have to defy paralysis by going ahead. I step into the void over and over and over again. I ask forgiveness for the times when I inadvertently step instead onto a toe.
For more information on the sculpture of Robert Bryce Muir, including Mea Culpa, see his website.