Messing Up

Have I ever told you that I do work in polymer clay?  I do.  Oddly enough, it’s writing that got me into it.  One of the two books that Roger Zelazny left Stages of Messing Upunfinished at the time of his death and I later completed was Lord Demon.  Kai Wren, the main character, is a potter and glass blower.

When I started the book, I found myself having a little trouble getting into Kai Wren.  I decided I needed to know more about his craft to understand him.  I read a bunch of books about making pottery and blowing glass.  I watched some demos in person, getting the heat of working glass into my blood, the wet fluidity of making pottery into my soul.

In the course of all of this, I learned about polymer clay.  Unlike “real” clay, polymer clay can be fired in your home oven.  It’s affordable, multi-colored (a huge attraction for me), and a fairly forgiving medium.  As my last step in getting to understand Kai Wren, I bought a pack and started working with it.  The book is long done, but I’ve never lost the attraction.

Maybe because I started working with polymer clay in association with my writing, it’s also something I continue to associate with writing.  This is true to a greater or lesser extent with several other crafts I do.  All of them occupy my conscious mind so that my subconscious mind is freed up to work on the story in question.

I talked about this a bit back in my Wednesday Wandering for 8-11-10, “Walking Away From It.”  Today I want to talk about something related but different: The Importance of Messing Up.

The importance of messing up is related to feeling free to take risks, something I talked about a year ago in relation to planting lilies (WW 3-30-11, “Taking Risks”).  By the way, the lilies did pretty well, but the ones by the sidewalk struggled with the heat.  We’ve moved them to the back.  We’re going to try zinnias by the sidewalk.  The lilies we put by the pond did great.  That was a risk that paid off.

Messing up may be related to taking risks, but it’s completely different.  When you take a risk, you know it might not work.  When you mess up, you know you’ve done something wrong.  You’ve wasted time.  You’ve wasted effort.  Where a risk taken that doesn’t pay off merits a shrug and an “oh, well,” messing up can trigger anger, resentment, a feeling that you’ll never get it right.

For any type of project this is dangerous, but for writing it can be devastating.  Why?  Because writers so often expect to get it right the first time through.

Let me go back to me and polymer clay.  I was working along, blending a color for modeling a figure.  I’d gotten it just right.  Then I realized I didn’t have enough for the project.  I pulled out more clay and started blending again.  This time, whether it was because I was tired or impatient or just eager to get going, I messed up.  I forgot one of the cardinal rules of blending polymer clay.  Always add far less of the “darker” or “stronger” color to the lighter.  Suddenly, instead of the tawny orange shade I wanted, I had something between flame and pumpkin.

To make matters worse, my hands hurt from all the kneading I’d been doing.  I wanted to quit.  But, hey, this was just polymer clay.  The orange wasn’t wasted.  I could use it some other day.  I pulled out more yellow and added a small amount of the pumpkin orange.  Eventually, I had my color.  I was out of time to finish that project, but there would be another day.

With writers, however, too often the reaction to messing up is to reject the project entirely.  It isn’t good enough.  It’s lost its “magic.”  Something else would be more fun, easier, more popular.

The thing is, unlike that polymer clay which can be reused, a story rejected because the writer “messed up” is lost forever.  The writer really has wasted time and effort.  I’m not saying every story is worth finishing.  Sometimes what is learned from messing up is that this particular piece truly is a dead end.  Sometimes, however, in working past where you messed up, you can learn a lot, not just about that story but about how you make stories.

So don’t be discouraged when you mess up.  Come back and give it another try.  Maybe you’ll need to walk away for a while.  Maybe you’ll need to categorize the new effort as taking a risk, but at least give it a try.  At the very worst, you’ll know you didn’t just surrender to frustration.  At the best, you may have a finished piece where otherwise you’d just have had a sense of disappointment.

How do you handle when you mess up?  Any tricks?  I’m always glad for something to add to my toolbox.

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10 Responses to “Messing Up”

  1. Dominique Says:

    I feel, like many of your blog readers today I’m sure, like this blog was meant for me today. It’s funny I guess. I couldn’t have read this at a better time. Needless to say, advice taken. Thanks Jane.

  2. Chad Merkley Says:

    From the outside, the creative arts can look like a black box, somehow the artist puts something in and by some arcane process, something amazing comes out. To some extent, it seems that there has often been a tendency by artists to encourage this perception.

    But anyone who tries painting, or creative writing, or composing music, and so on quickly learns that its a matter of practice. You have to keep doing little sketches or practicing scales and so on. I think that part of growing up is acknowledging that worthwhile thinks take time and effort, and that no honest attempt is really wasted in terms of learning something from it.

    Right now, my creative efforts (only as a hobby) have been turned towards songwriting. I don’t have much that I think is worth sharing, but it almost seems that every piece I gave up on taught me something about the craft. My big epiphanies lately have been that “less is more” when writing lyrics, that I can take an idea or phrase and save it for later, rather than forcing it to fit in my current project, and that I actually have quite a bit of freedom with the meter of the lyrics by playing with the melody rhythm.

    So messing up is simply part of the process of learning how to do your craft. Expect the occasional failure. Just think of it as a form of practicing.

  3. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Heh, the way I recover from the anger of messing up? Vanish into Perfect World (an MMO I play) or watch an episode of a TV show on DVD. That or just let it rage until it runs out of gas. Kind of like a child having a tantrum. *Figuratively speaking, in no way literal* let him tear things up, break windows, make a mess of things till he runs out of energy. Cause then the anger can’t fight back when you push him aside and find a reason to be happy again. Just keep long leash on in case he goes for things you can’t let him damage no matter what the reason *I.E. Deleting that story that isn’t a total bust.*

    As for wasting time, I have a hard time seeing any creative work as a waste. Even from the couple I’ve abandoned, I learned things. Shoot my very first… uh…. even piece is too generous…. scribbles, are now the backstory for my current work. Every time you write, you practice. Kind of like throwing a football to learn how to become a Quarterback. Each trow helps you learn.

    Even if some of those throws are best never seen. *Point’s to broken window.* or even mentioned.

  4. Paul Says:

    Lois Bujold once said in a long-ago Starlog interview (and I wish I’d saved the exact quote) something like, once you become a writer, anything you do, even the mistakes, becomes research. Regarded that way, nothing is wasted. Some dead-end projects take on new life when you come back to them later, even years later, perhaps from a new perspective (say, choosing a different point-of-view character the second time around). All this is much easier with computers than it used to be with typewriters and carbon paper!

  5. Susan Bannister Says:

    Reminds me, Jane, of the glass blowing classes that go on at The Toledo Museum of Art, pottery making classes there also and the work it takes to make changes to those crafts once they are almost completed. It is hard work to make these beautiful works of art, and it is beautiful when complete. We are lucky to have this magnificent museum in this area. Thank you for your wonderful article–it is encouraging to hear your words and never to late to start a craft, whether it is writing, pottery making, glass blowing, knitting, crocheting, or whatever you choose for a medium.

  6. Laura Says:

    I have a couple of life lessons I apply, in regards to making mistakes. When I was little and my mom would knit sweaters for the family. If she made a mistake in the pattern, she would weigh how far back it was and how much of her work would have to be undone to correct it, and she would decide to correct or leave it. I still have sweaters she made, with glaring mistakes, resulting from her cost-basis analysis.

    But with sewing lessons from my mom, probably because it doesn’t take that much time to zip a new seam on the sewing machine, she would always look at us and say – rip it out – which was always greeted by my groaning compliance.

    I much preferred her laissez faire knitting attitute, to her militant sewing attitude. So when I started painting, I learned to take any ‘mistakes’ and incorporate them or make them ‘work’, and keep moving forward, because I resented the ‘interruption’ of having to ‘repair’ mistakes.

    Whether it was appropriate or not, I always figured out how to incorporate my mistakes into my creative efforts, rather than conforming to some idea of perfection. This philosophy was enhanced by a ‘Native American beading tradition’ I read about at some point, to have one mistake in a piece, to avoid the hubris of perfection. But I would occasionally abandon pieces if I couldn’t figure out how to contort the mistake into an innovation that suited me.

    Years later, working, I encountered a friend, who cross-stitched. And contrary to my childhood lessons, no matter how far along she was, she would always rip out her work in order to repair her mistake. She had the ‘ideal’ pattern and her goal was to replicate it to perfection. Her dedication fascinated me. And I finally learned to ‘repair’ without resentment.

    I now try to balance my mistakes between innovation or repair, based on the ‘forgiveness’ of the media and the strength of my mental image of the final result. Sometimes a mistake has a wonderful unintended consequence of improving the piece beyond my original idea. Sometimes a repair is the only way to maintain the integrity of the piece. So, beading or bead making may or may not allow innovation depending on the pattern or technique. Stained glass is much less forgiving and requires repair, or extensive innovation, because an error has repercussions for the entire piece. Painting almost always allows me innovation.

    What has changed in my creative decision process is me. I learn from each error whether the next error should be repaired or innovated, based on my satisfaction with the result. I now feel as much joy and satisfaction from a successful repair as I do from a successful innovation, in the service of the finished piece.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I also judge patterns for bead work as “forgiving” and “unforgiving.”

      The wolf pouch on my website was “unforgiving.” Any error would have thrown off the design, but I really wanted to make it. However, for casual work, I prefer “forgiving” patterns.

  7. janelindskold Says:

    I think the biggest difference between writing (fiction or non-fiction) as a craft compared to the ones cited above (Laura and Chad, in particular), is that writing is the only one in which these days the basic skill set is used on a daily basis.

    Even sewing and knitting — once routinely done by men and women alike — have become hobbies or crafts for most modern Americans.

    But everyone knows how to write! Right? Wrong!

    You need to apply to writing the same tolerance for mistakes you would give any other art or craft.

  8. Other Jane Says:

    I never knew that you worked in clay. I’d like to see some pictures. I haven’t done much for years, but I’ve done a lot with the sculpy clay. A few (well more than a few) years back, there was just white clay and I painted everything. Now we have bins of clay and we’ll have occasional “clay days” with my nieces and their friends where we spend the evening making all sorts of things. When I have a chance, I’ll scan a few pics for you.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’m not very good, but I enjoy working in such a forgiving medium.

      I’m certainly not up to “bins,” but I do have a box for clay and another for tools. I just got the coolest extruder…

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