Writing from Wrong

“Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it.” ~Salvador Dalí

“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” ~Salvador Dalí

Let me begin with a story. I was eighteen years old and in a sophomore political science class at the University of Houston. The professor was giving a lecture on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and at some point, he asked a question of the class: did anyone know how many troops Gorbachev planned to withdraw after signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty? What happened next is hands-down the most embarrassing moment ever in my almost forty-four years, and it comes at no small discomfort to publish it here:

I raised my hand and sweetly asked, “How many soldiers are in a troop?”

A moment of grave silence followed while my professor cocked his head and narrowed his eyes, as if to determine the presence of guile in my question. Finding none, he said, flatly, “One.”

Muffled laughter, a few outright chortles. My face was quickly engulfed in a hot flush. Quick! my instinct screamed, Hide! I glanced around and saw the expression on my suitemate’s face; she was as embarrassed by my humiliation as I was.

Oh, but I hadn’t felt at all vulnerable when the question left my mouth. There’s no getting around the fact that I was wrong, that I should have known by then that troop wasn’t troupe, but until that awful charged silence, I felt good—proud even—to be participating, and imagined that my handsome infatuation who was sitting a few seats behind me would find my question relevant and possibly even inspiring. Because you know what being wrong feels like, emotionally speaking?

It feels just like being right.

That is, until that cringe-worthy moment when you realize that you are wrong. Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong, uses the analogy of Wile E. Coyote, and how enthusiastically he runs off the cliff in pursuit of the Roadrunner. Coyote gets a few feet off the edge, feeling very right about his decision until that gravitationally challenged instant when he stops mid-air and looks down.

All my life, I’ve met the realization of wrongness with a sort of terrified embarrassment: Shit! I’ve been found out! Everyone will think—no, they will know—that I’m not as smart/good/worthy as they thought I was or as I pretended to be. Making mistakes in life is to be expected, at least in the abstract; it’s how we learn. But being wrong feels shameful. And so, all my life, I’ve tried to hide it.

Shall we count the ways I’ve been wrong? Let’s see. I use words incorrectly and I’m too hasty when I push “send.” In emails to a very dear writer friend of mine, I often let my fingers go too far ahead of my thoughts and I’ll make mistakes like saying solemn when I mean something more along the lines of sadness, or using enervated when I mean energized. (To his credit, he doesn’t seem to mind.)

Oh I know a solecism is a trifling example. I make gaffes in every shape and size—from the silly to the really bad ones that begin by me yanking the needle out of my moral compass and end with someone getting hurt. I’ve taken wrong turns and gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. I’ve made some really regrettable decisions regarding my hair. I’ve had failures of memory and chasmic gaps in knowledge. I’ve attempted to defend a position without enough facts, and have failed to defend a person that deserved it. I’ve made errors in judgment, exposing my heart and mind and (often thin) skin to the wrong kind of wrong people: those who suffer from not just everyday human failings, but rather a malignant, blow-your-house-down kind of wrongness.

Recently I’ve been thinking about this. Not just my unique extravaganza of errors, but those imaginary ones enacted by my characters. I’ve been getting a lot of feedback about Roscoe Jones and the tenants he interacts with in 11 Stories and one of the most common is that readers say they can relate to the characters’ human frailties and fallibilities. Their blatant episodes of being wrong. Which is exactly what I seek in fiction—and in friends—confirmation that I’m not the only one.

So if being wrong is part of our common human experience, then what is really the point of trying to avoid it? I’ve spent a lot of time trying to fit inside what Schultz calls “the tiny, terrified space of rightness” trying to hide my imperfections. It turns out that the only person I’ve been even partly successful in hiding them from is myself.

I’m trying to discover more about a new head-squatter, a character named Nick. As a photographer, he wants to simultaneously communicate and conceal his true self, including his shortcomings. (Sound familiar?) But I have to be careful not to let him hide too much; readers don’t want him to be perfect—they want him to be relatable.

This sounds like good advice for the author to follow, too. Try to shed the anxieties around my inadequacies and embrace them instead, especially since I’m not very good at hiding them, and anyway the best sorts of people don’t expect me to.

But on the other hand, I could be wrong.