Thursday, January 5, 2012

Loud Mistakes

My friend Kate sent me this encouraging article yesterday:

For those of you who are only going to pretend to read it, I'll paraphrase. Basically it tells the story of how Joshua Bell, the world's reigning King of the Violin, effed up the beginning a concerto royally at his first competition. But then he stopped, collected himself, and tried again. He ended up playing better than he ever had in his life, but moreover, this:

For me it was a major revelation, and it taught me that when you take your mind off worrying about being perfect all the time, sometimes amazing things can happen. So much of performing is a mind game. You’re memorizing thousands of notes, and if you start thinking about it in the wrong way, everything can blow up in your face. When I’m onstage and make a mistake, I remember back to that moment. I learned from that experience how to get into that zone. The competition ended up launching my career and my confidence in a lot of ways. It was a turning point and a lesson I use to this day.

As both a writer and a musician, this really made my heart feel all warm and snuggly.

I'm no Joshua Bell, but I know exactly what he's talking about.

My sophomore year of college was the 300th birthday of J.S. Bach. Maybe it wasn't the 300th but please don't make me do the math. At any rate, the College of Music had this HUGE concert and basically performed as many of Bach's works as they could fit in.

I was chosen to play a fugue. Anyone who's ever played a piano fugue knows that it's not just one melody you're playing but up to 8 at a time. So I worked hard. I practiced umpteen hours and lost sleep over it. And when the day came, I got up in front of my professors and fellow students and... totally choked. The first measure was perfect. Then I couldn't remember the second measure. Or any of the others after that.

That whole expression about wanting to crawl in a hole and die? That was me. At my next piano studio meeting, I couldn't make eye contact with my professor. I wanted to hide under the piano and cry. But then he said to me, "Laura, I want you to play the fugue for your quarter jury. You have to show them you can."

When the quarter ended and it was time for my jury, I ended up playing it perfectly for the keyboard faculty. I was in this beautiful concert hall and I remember that moment so well. It felt like it was just me, a Steinway, and Bach. And I felt SO FREE.

Why was it so easy this time? Because it was no secret that I could mess it up. I knew; the professors knew.  And the thing was, even if I messed it up again, I'd already felt that sting. This time it wouldn't be as sharp. Also, on the flip side, giving yourself permission to make mistakes also acknowledges that you can do better. It not only makes it easier to try again, it pushes you to. The pressure from the outside was off: I wanted to do better for ME, because I knew I could.

My piano teacher when I was little used to tell me, "If you make a mistake, make it loud so I can hear it. I can't help you if I can't hear your mistakes." It's something I tell my own music students now. Mistakes let you off the hook, they push you to grow, and they in some ways measure your progress.

As I'm writing this today, there's a particularly painful rejection in my inbox. The details don't matter except to say I felt more invested than ever in this particular situation. It stings. I'm embarrassed. I kind of want to hide and cry for a while.

But so what? I'm going to make this loud, that's why I'm telling you this. Yeah, I didn't get the agent I was hoping for, but now I can look for other fabulous agents, beef up my query, tighten my writing. I feel that push to prove to myself that I can. Also, I wrote today like I haven't written in a long time - like a person free of any sort of pressure. And it was WONDERFUL. I was writing for me again, not writing to impress, or towards publication, or any of that. Amazing and interesting combination, isn't it?

But more than anything, that rejection was a big step for me, a huge measure of progress. There was a time I didn't think I'd ever ever be brave enough to let anyone read something I wrote, and now I'm facing the sting of rejection and... faring well. I worked up the courage to send out my writing. That's progress. I sent something GOOD out to be read, good enough that this is only one of many agents who have my work, and that's really great progress. And I don't feel broken, and that's a much more personal thing yes, but a big step in the right direction for me.

So I'll just leave you with this final thought, a part of the New Years blog from the amazing Neil Gaiman:

"I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something.

So that's my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody's ever made before. Don't freeze, don't stop, don't worry that it isn't good enough, or it isn't perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you're scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever."


SarahBeth said...

I'm sorry about the rejection, but I kind of love this blog and the blog from NG. :D

Laura said...

Thanks, hon. Neil Gaiman AND Joshua Bell in one blog. I mean, how can you top that? LOL

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

Good Post. Keep senting out. Jack London had 602 rejections. I'm nowhere near that yet.

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

We were going to follow you, but couldn't find a follow button.
Your thoughts are excellent. The background makes the rather had to read. But it's a very pretty site

Joanna said...

Me sorry too about the rejection, never nice :( but love these profound thoughts. Especially like the piano teachers advice that if you're going to make a mistake then make it loud!

Russ Cox said...

I enjoyed reading your heartfelt post. I too, play music (banjo and bass but not at the same time-lol) and when you let go of being perfect, you really can become one with the instrument. Now I am trying to apply that to my illustration work. Thanks for reminding me to do so.

Sorry to hear about the "your story is not right for us at the moment" letter (I do not like the word rejection). You will find the right agent for you.

Now where is my banjo?

Laura said...

Russ - I like your phrase for it better. Rejection seems so... rejection-like. PS., if you ever learn to play banjo and bass at the same time, I will come to that concert. That would be worth the airfare alone.

Joanna - Thanks, Joanna. Yeah, it sucks and it hurts, but if you learn something, you're better than before, right?

Pen and Ink - I changed the background a bit, hopefully that's better. And made the follow button more obvious. ;) And 602 rejections? Yikes. Good thing he knew he had an excellent story and kept at it.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

I figure if I'm rejected this time I'm that much closer to success. So I celebrate each publishers rejection letter as a step in the process.

Sherry said...

So very true. You might like this post:

And you might enjoy Billy Coffey's blog in its entirety:

Bill Kirk said...

Well said. I suppose the hard part is getting past the idea that the mistake is terminal with no do-overs. Your professor was wise but you, even wiser for taking the risk the second time. A toast to courage the second time around....

Laurisa White Reyes said...

Loved this post. Can totally relate. I just recently bombed big time at an audition I prepared seven months for. I was sure I'd at least get a call back. I wanted it badly. I didn't get so much as a second blink. I felt devastated, embarrassed and even angry. But lo and behold, a few days later a writing opportunity opened up that I could not have taken had I gotten cast. It's like God knew I'd rather write than act. I had to let him steer my ship. It was hard, but worth it. Thanks so much. - Laurisa White Reyes, author of The Rock of Ivanore (Tanglewood Press, May 2012)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. I'm listening to John Lennon, lol "with each mistake we surely must be learning". Weird, but awesome timing.

Pat Zietlow Miller said...

Great post! I wish you lots of writing and musical success in 2012. And may one or two loud mistakes. :)

Kim Van Sickler said...

A very heartfelt post! People keep saying it, but when you start believing it, it's so helpful: write for you first. If not, you'll drive yourself insane trying to find acceptance. Good luck to you in your writing and agent search!

Jim Randolph said...

Should be an easy resolution for me to make: Make more mistakes!"

Yellow Brick Reads said...

Rejection can be very disappointing. But it can sometimes be a really significant learning experience. I've posted this video of Ken Robinson talking about creativity and the need to keep trying -I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!