mistakes

On the Back of Every Mistake

Café Terrace at Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Oil on canvas

Antilamentation
by Dorianne Laux, from The Book of Men 

Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the livingroom couch,
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering
any of it. Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.

A Reliable Path to the Good Life

Excerpt from "What if the Secret to Success Is Failture?" by Paul Tough, The New York Times, September 14, 2011:

[Martin] Seligman and [Christopher] Peterson consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude.

In most societies, Seligman and Peterson wrote, these strengths were considered to have a moral valence, and in many cases they overlapped with religious laws and strictures. But their true importance did not come from their relationship to any system of ethics or moral laws but from their practical benefit: cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to “the good life,” a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.

Six years after that first meeting, Levin and Randolph are trying to put this conception of character into action in their schools. In the process, they have found themselves wrestling with questions that have long confounded not just educators but anyone trying to nurture a thriving child or simply live a good life. What is good character? Is it really something that can be taught in a formal way, in the classroom, or is it the responsibility of the family, something that is inculcated gradually over years of experience? Which qualities matter most for a child trying to negotiate his way to a successful and autonomous adulthood? And are the answers to those questions the same in Harlem and in Riverdale? 

Read the entire article here...

Life is an Experiment

“Life consists in penetrating the unknown, and fashioning our actions in accord with the new knowledge thus acquired.”

~ Leo Tolstoy, from The Kingdom of God Is within You

“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions.  All life is an experiment.  The more experiments you make, the better.  What if they are a little coarse, and you may get your coat soiled or torn?  What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice?  Up again, you shall nevermore be so afraid of a tumble again.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, from Journals, November 11, 1842

“Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.”

~ Anaïs Nin, from D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study

“What is a scientist after all? It is a curious [person] looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what's going on."

~ Jacques Cousteau, from The Christian Science Monitor, July 21, 1971

“The greater one's science, the deeper the sense of mystery.”

~ Vladimir Nabokov, from Strong Opinions

"Everybody's a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We're all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos."

~ David Cronenberg, from Cronenberg on Cronenberg

Encouragement to Keep the Mistakes

Robin Romm discussing writing programs Michael Silverblatt of KCRW’s Bookworm (3.26.09). She has written a collection of short stories (The Mother Garden) and a memoir (The Mercy Papers), both fueled by the experience of her mother’s death from cancer.

Robin Romm: I didn’t have a lot of expectations. I didn’t know what would be The Mother Storiesup for the taking. And what I found at San Francisco State were a lot of faculty members who were interested in new ways of approaching the creative life, who had sort of gotten away from workshop. And I didn’t take too many workshops actually. I spent more of my time in classes generating work and finding ways to look at the world—to learn to stare and to go deeper.

And for me, graduate school was this very interesting pause in my life where I could scrapple with what was going on for me emotionally, intellectually and try to get that down on paper somehow. And it was less about nit picking a sentence and making it conform to something.

The Mercy PapersAnd interestingly when I first met my editor on the phone, she said, “Did you take workshops?” And I said, “Not very many.” And she said, “I can tell. These have the quality that they’re different from a lot of the stories that I see. They’re rawer. They have edges and sharp places.” And she meant that as a compliment not a criticism.

I do think that the writing workshop is a great place to generate work and to get feedback on your work, but it has its limits, too.

Michael Silverblatt: It interests me because I have said and I think it’s true that what a young writer needs is encouragement to keep the mistakes. That what people are calling the mistakes are probably the sounds and insights that make the writing strange and individual. And that making sure that the writing is all mistake is the process of finding your own voice.