Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Paradox of Error

I use an old but simple writing submission database to track my writing submissions (and my voluminous rejections and rare acceptances). The program opens with a menu that contains an author quotation. Since I’ve used this program for years, I’ve read and saved most of the quotations a long time ago. I dig them up periodically for various purposes ranging from Facebook status updates, to e-mail signatures to writing prompts.

So, when I opened the program to record a story rejection this morning, an old quotation popped up. I don’t recall ever reading it before, but I surely  must have because the program only contains a hundred at most. Perhaps it simply didn’t resonate at other times the way it did today.

But that’s not the quotation I’m going to share with you.

HA! That’s the way sundog and jellyfish moments happen, without warning and sometimes on a big switcheroo. . .

When I copied the Keats quote in question and went to paste it into my authors’ quotation bank, I dropped it in front of another quotation that I had to have read previously, because  I copied and pasted it along with all the rest, one at a time. It must also have struck me today as being far more important than when I deposited it:

If you shut your door to all errors, truth will be shut out.

~ Rabindranath Tagore, poet, philosopher, author, songwriter, painter, educator, composer, Nobel laureate (1861-1941)

I’m sure that Rabindranath Tagore, being the multidimensional spiritual leader he was, could expound on error and this quotation in ways that would leave us all breathless. I can’t do that, but his words struck me like lightning.

In the course of navigating through our writing and our lives, it is important to correct errors, no? It is often said that good writing comes not with the initial draft, but in the act(s) of revision. As writers, we spend a great deal of time polishing our work to the highest level that we can achieve, which is dependent upon our understanding or skill at the time. We try our best to not make mistakes.

Life is like that too – we make errors, we correct course. As we gain experience, we are able to correct course or revise more fluidly and are also able to avoid making previous errors.

However, Tagore seems to refer here to error in the context of paradox: Truth will be shut out if you shut the door to all error.

We do things wrong, we’re supposed to suffer, right?

Not always. We make a cake but forget an ingredient, or make a wrong turn on a city street, or glob the paint on the “wrong” way, or commit some sin or another. But instead of disaster, we create a new product, discover a wonderful new neighborhood, start a fabulous new painting technique, or by committing a sin – just a shameful, guilt-ridden word for error – we are liberated from some habitual tendency by gaining greater realization through the consequences of the action.

I think Tagore’s point about error as applied to the writing craft reveals this: not only are errors valuable in the sense of the learning derived from making them, but that by allowing error into our work in the most creative sense, this allows us to create deeper and better connected writing.

I suppose this topic could be handled better in a book-length discussion by a more masterful philosopher or writer, but in my nutshell exploration, I think the jist of finding truth in error in our writing life is to simply allow error to happen or to accept error when it happens.

Both writing and life flow better with less negative critique from the “internal editor”, the judgmental side of monkey mind. This is the essence of mind that perpetually chatters, that assigns black and white judgment rather than allowing the shades of gray inherent in life and creativity to show through. If we operate outside the editor mentality, then we avoid limiting possibilities and are able to look past the right or wrong binary and into the realm of paradox.

Grappling with paradox allows us to deepen our writing and get to those real nuggets of truth. This may mean allowing ourselves to write in a genre or style not embraced by the mainstream, by discovering something interesting or beautiful in work that we might first perceive as an error, or simply by patiently polishing our work by stages into something beautiful.

How many times have you written something that you felt was wonderful, only to discover that your crit group or the editor of your favorite literary magazine not only didn’t see your work in the same light, they didn’t see any light in it at all? While the input of others can be invaluable, you can’t expect them to fully understand your truth until you’ve fully revealed it in your work. (And another paradox here is that even when you get the work polished, it still won’t please all, and still be viewed as error!)

A first attempt at something rarely yields the best result, and whether you’re learning to bake the best cake in the world, painting a masterpiece, trying to find the most intriguing neighbourhood in Madrid, or working on an award-winning essay, it may take a whole lotta rounds and errors to find the jewel.

Error can bring us to the truth just as frequently as “not error” or the right stuff can. By accepting the paradox in our creative work and our lives, by embracing the shadow portions of ourselves and our work, we allow the truth and /or the greatest of relative truths to shine through.

In this regard, jellyfish can be sundogs, and sundogs can be jellyfish. If we don’t make errors and simply reject (or run from, or punish) error and live in the black and white world of conceptual thought, the binary thinking that makes error wrong and “not error” right, then it’s a lot harder to bask in the light of truth. We might not even understand what the full spectrum of truth is in any given situation until we make errors and grapple with them.

Truth is best revealed in prose and poetry, song and music, image and film when an artist has allowed the work to take wrong corners, to miss ingredients, or to accept unorthodox elements. When we seek to  control life with pre-conceived recipes for success or control our creative work with a list of rules, we are rewarded with limited understanding and limited results. Rule-bound thinking results in partial right or “not error”, but not the full-blooded, hearty truth.

Rules are usually applicable, especially in the context of non-negotiables like the Ten Commandants or watertight grammar rules, but the paradox of negotiating error and “not error” is the process that leads to deeper understanding, to truth. Accepting error is an inclusive process, related to the exhortation in my last blog entry to not quitting, to “just keep going.”

I make no claim to have any great grasp of Truth with a capital T, but we all have our own relative truth. This is what we strive to present in our writing, those words that come from the heart. Truth is the arrow released by our best work and it plunges into the soul of the observer. Allow yourself some error - to play with error, to celebrate it, even -  to allow truth to shine from your work.

As for the Keats quote, I guess that’s a story for next time!