NaNoWriMo Pep Talk: The Pure Fucking Joy Of Getting It All Wrong

Our son, a bonafide kindergartener, had his first conference this week. Or, rather, we had his first conference, sitting with the teacher to hear how he’s holding up in THE GARDEN OF CHILDREN.

The conference was, by and large, a glowing one. I’ll brag a little here and say he’s excelling in school — despite him telling us how much he despises school and does not understand what’s happening at any point ever, the truth is that while there, he’s focused and interested and performing well above his five-year-old pay grade.

We are justifiably proud. I mean, I’d be proud of him if he licked wall sockets and rubbed gum in his hair, because he’s my kid and I love him. But as someone who is a writer, you know, I take a special thrill to hear how he’s leaping headlong into learning language and how he’s spelling words on his own just for the joy of spelling them. 

The only tiny ding in the conference was this:

He is very afraid to get things wrong.

He wants near-constant confirmation that what he’s doing is the right thing and not, say, the wrong thing. He wants to do things the right way from the beginning, and never wants to do them wrong. Because wrong is bad. It’s baked right there in the word.

Wrong is not right. Wrong is wrong. And wrong is shit.

We tried to think if we’re somehow inadvertently instilling this in him, but the teacher assured us: this is most kids. Most children want confirmation that they’re doing this right. I said, chuckling oh-ho-ho, that this is true of most adults, too, especially writers.

I said it as kind of a throwaway, but then I thought:

Yeah, no, that’s exactly writers.

It was me, certainly, once upon a time. Hell, it’s me even now. I remember writing a “book” in like, fifth grade, and I wanted it to be perfect. I remember writing short stories in high school and I wanted them to be like all the short stories I’d read and loved — meaning, I wanted to be operating at a master level while simultaneously being a dumb-ass 11th grade shitbird. It’s like wanting to go from “learning to crawl” to “performing perfect parkour over a shark tank.” It’s like turning on American Ninja Warrior and thinking not only, I want to do that, but worse, I want to do that right now, at that level. Even presently I start a book and I feel THE FEAR, the one that says, this needs to be right, this can’t be wrong, you know how to do this, don’t fuck it up or… I dunno, goblins will eat you or something, I’m not entirely clear on the consequences.

Except, I am clear on the consequences.

There exist no consequences for getting it wrong as a writer.

And so, I thought, let’s talk about getting it wrong.

Moreover, let’s talk about the fervid fucking joy of getting it wrong. Because I believe it is exactly this joy that will carry your ass through NaNoWriMo and out the other side.

1. To repeat: there exist no consequences for getting it wrong as a writer. If you’re splitting atoms or last-at-bat during the World Series or sniping aliens in the nega-zone, okay, sure, have some consequences. You don’t want to fuck some things up. But writing is one of those things where you have basically no consequences at all. You can get it wrong all day and nobody will die, your house won’t catch fire, your pets won’t go go mad and eat you. It’s not carcinogenic. You don’t have to pay money for every misspelled word. Yes, there are consequences should you choose to submit the wrong thing to the wrong people. And okay, yeah, you could argue that one consequence of writing badly is that you sacrifice your time, but to that I’d argue:

2. Getting it wrong is a vital part of getting it right. Spend the time getting it wrong because that’s how you learn to do this thing. The book you want to write is up there on a high shelf, and sure, you want to build a perfect, structurally-sound ladder to get to it. That is a fair impulse. But please understand that it is just as valid to build a mound of garbage that you climb like a hill to get to that top shelf. Still works. Elevation is elevation. It is the truest truth and yet it feels somehow like a lie that to do a thing at even the barest level of competency, you need to practice. That’s true whether it’s surfing or making soup or hunting vampires. It’s true in all the creative pursuits: painting, music, narrative orgy design, and of course, writing. You know how the first time you have sex it’s awkward and uncomfortable and wait where does this hand go and hold on why is there a desk lamp in my ass-crack? Yeah, you get it wrong then, too, and I think we can all roughly agree that it’s worth getting wrong so you can learn to get it right. What this means is, in writing, the time spent getting it wrong is not a sacrifice. It’s certainly no waste. It is, in fact, an essential part of doing the thing. You do it one way, you find ways to do it better next time. IN BOTH SEX AND WRITING. And, probably, writing about sex.

3. Fear of judgment is bad juju. Kids are afraid of getting it wrong because they’re afraid of being judged. That’s the consequence they fear. They’re young and untested little proto-people, and their job is to mimic adult people, so they want to convince us that they’re just like us in order to fit in and be allowed to do more cool stuff. It’s a natural inclination, but it’s one we foolishly carry with us. We bring that from childhood into adulthood, where we supplant “adult people” with “our peers,” so we are constantly trying to blend in with the rest of the tribe. We’re saying, look, look! We can do this. Don’t judge us harshly. We’re good, we’re fine. It’s doubly worse when we start to realize that art and creativity are not well-respected (despite them being vital parts of nearly every career out there), and so we want to get it right in order to prematurely defeat those who would judge us for choosing such a shit path in the first place. But that’s all garbage. Art, especially art in its formative stages, withers under the laser-like focus of judgment — particularly the judgment we imagine will happen, not the judgment that will actually occur. The judgment that comes later in the form of criticism — that is real, but even that, it can be useful and we must not fear it. (Ignore it? Sometimes. Fear it, never.)

4. Getting it wrong is fun as hell, man. The page is a safe space. It’s your space. It is a kingdom you invented. You can go do whatever you want there. I said this in my ‘official’ NaNoWriMo pep talk a couple years back — you can do whatever you want. It’s an empty field and you’ve got the keys to a Ferrari. Stop thinking about getting it wrong, and start thinking of it as engaging in the forbidden. The forbidden is a no-no, a naughty proscription replete with finger-wagging and tongue-clucking. It’s rules and fences, and there is nothing more fun than giving the middle finger to rules and crashing through fences in a fast car. We love to break the law and countermand what we’re supposed to do. So, do that. Have fun. Behold the forbidden, then do it anyway, because nothing is more fun than that.

5. Nobody knows what the hell ‘wrong’ is, anyway. Wrong is bullshit. Right is bullshit. Art knows no such boundaries. Writing and story exists in this penumbral margin — yes, there is right by way of what an agent or an editor or the audience says, okay, but even there, it’s not like you have some stiff, unyielding definition. There exists no rigorously tested place of truth. This is a land of pure theory. It is lawless and wonderfully fucked. You can do as you please and in getting it ‘wrong’ you may already be getting it right. We often like to think of ‘right’ as being a replicable thing, a series of examples from those who came before. But also remember that many of the greatest successes in fiction are those who took a hard left turn away from HOW IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN DONE — they drove right off the cliff, and in that, did something new, something different, something very much wrong. Wrong is right and right is wrong and nobody can much tell which side is up and which side is down. Dogs and cats living together. Go forth. Embrace wrong. Nobody knows anything. Seize the freedom that comes with that.

To speak to that last point, and to bring it all back together:

Watch children play. Not learn in a strict academic environment — but play. That is when you see kids unburdened by judgment. That’s when you see them operate in a way unfettered, uncaring, and they perform feats of athletic impossibility and they spout gibberish that pinballs between batshit cuckoo and actual literal genius. That is where you need to be. You need to be unafraid to get it wrong. You need to view this as an opportunity not to get it right –

But rather, as an opportunity to play.

Go play.

And soon you realize one of the great secrets:

We learn more through play, anyway. Play is how we learn to do it right.

Have a happy National Novel Writing Month. Go play, go write, go get it way, way wrong.

* * *

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28 comments

  • I’m currently feeling super guilty for not doing more to prepare for NaNo – all those character creation exercises, unfinished! The synopsis, undone! The log line, abandoned in frustration! I forget that I already have a pretty well fleshed-out skeleton of a novel already in my head. Just because it’s not written down, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    And this. “Getting it wrong is fun as hell, man.” Yes. I’m writing YA, and my novel is steadily becoming more and more dark, to a nearly baroque extent. And going dark in YA is fine if you couch it in fantastical terms. But when it’s set in the real world, with real issues, it seems like you either have to be very circumspect in your writing, or else commit to writing an After School Special novel that is solely defined by the problem it addresses (“that date rape novel,” “that school shooting novel,” etc.) rather than by plot, or characters, or writing. And I don’t want to do either. I don’t want to sensationalize what I’m writing about, but I also don’t want to bowdlerize it, either. I think all I can do is get it all out on the page, have fun experimenting with just how dark I’m willing to go, and ratchet back as necessary. I don’t need to worry about whether or not the thing I’m writing is marketable before I’ve even birthed it into existence. (And yes, I know I’m making generalizations here, and there are exceptions. Andrew Smith and Shaun David Hutchinson both do a good job not falling into the above tropes. But it’s a fine line.)

  • Hmm. Fiction writing is about getting it all wrong. At least according to some people. St. Augustine claimed poetry and fiction were lying, pure and simple. I disagree, unless someone publishes fiction and claims it’s journalism; that would indeed be lying.
    The neat thing about writing fiction is you can invent people, places and things that never existed. There are rules to go by if you want your fiction to be good, but unlike biographies or history books you aren’t confined to “facts and figures.” I remember a character invented by Dickens, Mr. Gradgrind, who is always teaching children “facts and figures” and the importance of these facts and figures. He means well, but his own children pay the price because they lack imagination and emotional maturity to deal with the problems life throws up against them as adults.
    Of course whatever is true of fiction writing as far as imagination and invention goes is doubly true of speculative fiction. Hyper-fiction is what I call it. Seems like you and a lot of this blog’s followers are interested in that, Chuck. (I am too.)

  • Chuck, I love your posts! So timely, so relevant it’s like you’re writing them just for me, and super entertaining to boot. You do a kickass pep talk. I wasn’t going to touch NaNoWriMo with a ten foot pole but you might have changed my mind.
    I wanna go play!

  • Chuck, your words are wise, as always. But even so, I’m not so much afraid of getting anything wrong as I am of not being able to know what ‘getting it right’ might look like. Hrm.

  • My four-year-old is like your five-year-old. Fortunately, she’s a big fan of the Magic School Bus, so we’re learning to make mistakes with Miss Frizzle’s motto “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!” (disclaimer: my kid’s pretty fantastic at getting messy without need of mottoes). For some reason I never applied this to writing until I read this post. Anyway, I’ve a word count to meet and several mistakes to make, cheers!

  • I have the ‘be perfect’ gene too. The worst thing about it is when it stops you doing things at all in case you’re not perfect. Good luck with getting him to play at things and realise improvement is fun too.

  • This comes at just the right time after some dipshit sent me an article about how being an author is one of the top 10 most overrated jobs (in terms of income, job satisfaction, stress levels, and potential career growth). Fuck that noise right in its ear!

    Off I go to gallivant in the fields of ecstatic failing and flailing!

    • For ages I was confused by the lack of enthusiasm that I received from the people in my life with regards to my writing, then I read an article about bucket lists and saw that writing a book was right up there around number three. Which means that a lot of people have a negative reaction because you are doing something that they want to do, but for whatever reason haven’t done, and this gets under their skin.

  • Ah yes. I’m one of those who fear doing it wrong … not that I know what doing writing right looks like! Perfection is a killer and I’m working on achieving a “good enough” level. This year I’m in a better place and ready to do this again. Maybe I just haven’t messed up enough, put together enough words in the wrong order, or even the wrong words for what I’m trying to convey. I still have some muck to go through. And thanks for reminding me that this is fun. If it weren’t fun I wouldn’t spend time doing it, right?

  • November 1, 2016 at 9:53 AM // Reply

    Gonna try to start tonight.. Decided to do an adaptation of the film Psycho at least at first, though I’ll probably spin it off in a different direction at some point. This may be partially cheating but this is my first time writing fiction of this length and I figure it’ll be a little more manageable when I don’t have to stress about the story or characters as much and can just focus on how to actually write and structure a fucking novel.

  • Thanks for this! I’ve never done NaNo before, but I learned the hard way that the first draft is supposed to be shit. I crawled my way through it, thinking I would be the only one in history to publish my first draft. Everything had to be perfect. Five drafts later and I’m so glad I didn’t let anyone see that first draft. What a turd that was. :)

  • Heya Chuck,

    LOVE the post. In terms of your b-dub, may I very humbly and HIGHLY recommend Mindset by Carol Dwerk. It’s about developing a growth mindset vs. a fixed one, cuz let me tell you, mine is a fixed as concrete, thanks to dad (succeed and never fail, b/c if you do you are a fraud).

    I work at a large private school in Toronto in marcom and the Head of School made every single teacher read this book. It’s pretty much life changing and it’s awesome for parents, and regular folk.

    Regards,
    M.

  • Two different people have told me that this is too long to have tattooed on the inside of my eyelids, so I guess I’m just going to have to take some excerpts from it, print them out in a big font, and staple them to the wall of my workshop instead. (Not a writer, or at least not right now, but it’s not really about writing anyway, is it?)

  • Yes! This!! Brilliant.

    A few years back, when my young teen was a young toddler, I picked up a tip that goes like this: when your kid is creating something (a drawing, the Titanic, whatever), instead of commenting on what you think of it and what you think it is, invite them to tell you all about their creation. They might enlighten you that their drawing of the pretty box is actually a time traveling rocket ship that can make unlimited mac and cheese.
    Have a great November.

  • Thank you for this, Chuck! If I didn’t have this Perfection Obsession too, I might have already published novels instead of waiting until forty-mumble to finally aim my uzi at the target and load it up (that’s not a euphemism, by the way. Well it is, but not THAT kind of euphemism.)

    My son has also inherited this “if it’s not perfect it’s a DISASTER!” tendency from me. He had it at five, just like B-Dub, and he still has it at ten, in spite of me doing my positive-talking and failing-is-just-another-step-closer-to-succeeding speeches. I truly believe it’s something built into writer and creative types, because I’ve brought my son up COMPLETELY differently to how I was brought up and yet we’re like two peas in a pod when it comes to this. If what you’ve written here is the kind of thing you tell B-Dub, you’re officially the greatest writer-daddy in the world. :)

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