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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