Messing up stinks. Especially when you think you have nothing to fall back on.
I had to learn that the hard way last year. It started in a cafeteria kitchen – I was working as a dishwasher at my college, Taylor University. Dishwashing doesn’t require much of thinking, so I was daydreaming, remembering a scene I’d recently seen in the movie Kingsman where hundreds of government leaders get killed via their heads exploding.
I wondered how American culture reached that point, where you could release a movie where all the major world leaders die and it’s okay because they’re just politicians after all.
And it’s not the only one, I thought. I tried to think of a TV show or movie I’d seen recently that showed politicians as anything but villains. Then I wondered about how that affected my generation (Millennials) and remembered a Parade article on about common characteristics of Millennials. Suddenly, I was writing an opinion article about why millennials didn’t care enough about politics.
I went back to my dorm, convinced myself this was a silly idea, but sometime in the next several days, my roommate convinced me to go for it. I threw together an outline, dug into the Internet for government reports and other research, and sent the finished article to the opinion editor for Taylor’s student newspaper, The Echo. A few edits later she agreed to run it.
I was ecstatic. I’d written some articles for my high school student newspaper, but that paper disappeared after my freshman year. This was for a long-lasting publication people liked, something that wouldn’t be found stacked in corners of classrooms because no one cared about it. I felt like a real writer.
The article finally came out, and for roughly four days I was in heaven. I was the third Professional Writing major in my year to get a place on the Brag Board of published students. A few of my dorm mates complimented me on the article as I passed them in hallways. I even got asked to appear on the college radio show and talk about my article.
I met with the student who ran the radio show, we talked about what we’d discuss on air, and I returned to my dorm to reread my research and find new sources to mention during the show. That was when I discovered my little mistake. I’d studied two or three different studies about voting rates for the article, and taken a statistic from one year and accidentally said it was from two years earlier. I’d also said the statistic came from a completely different study. It looked fine on paper – in fact, it made things more sensational than if I’d used the correct research – but it wasn’t true. The fact The Echo created an impressive visual where all the article’s statistics were shown in big, bold letters didn’t help things much either.
At some point in the next several hours, I got myself back together and emailed The Echo explaining my mistake. I included an open letter apology they could print if they had to make a retraction, but the opinions editor assured me that wasn’t necessary. Those sort of mistakes happened sometimes, it hadn’t damaged my main argument in the article anyway.
That evening I went on the student radio show, apologized for my mistake and told listeners that if they were upset by it to send me their hate mail and not to The Echo. The show host thought that was funny, and we continued talking on the air like nothing had happened.
I don’t know if it was while I walked back to my dorm after the show or in later weeks that I realized what had happened. I had made what was really a simple mistake, embarrassing but hardly crippling, and it had almost crushed me. My success as a writer had become so hardwired to my self-esteem that I couldn’t make even small errors without feeling like a failure. In short, writing had become the god I looked to for security and value.
This is an easy mistake for writers to make. Most successful writers have to seriously love what they do to stick with it, especially in the beginning where all they seem to get is rejection. If they’re extremely successful, people may start to see them in the shadow of their work and the connection only gets stronger.
But in the end, writing is a poor god. It brings no comfort when you fail, no immovable loyalty when push comes to shove, no eternal sustenance. Even artists need something greater to keep them going. As a Christian, I’m eternally glad that I have that.