We needed a downstairs bathroom in our old house, so my husband Barry is building it. He worked as a carpenter when he was a young man and has kept up his skills, but because it isn’t something he does all the time, there are many learning and re-learning curves.
The other day while we were taking our evening walk, he told me about a “stupid mistake” (is there any other kind?) he’d made. Then he quoted the man who taught him carpentry, saying, “The sign of a good carpenter is the ability to cover up your mistakes and make them work.”
This is a concept I’m familiar with. In art, we do this. You make a mistake in an oil painting, it’s no problem, just repaint it. That’s trickier in watercolor, but perfection is elusive at best, so you figure out a way to integrate that mistake until it can no longer be identified as one. In cooking, if you add too much salt or spice you can’t toss the whole meal. No, you fix it. Add something else—potato or dairy—to smooth out the flavour and make it yummy. In dressmaking, this works as well. Is it too tight in the hips? Gussets! Hem too short? Ruffle! Occasionally our cover-ups even make it better than it would have been with out the screw-up (okay, maybe not the ruffle-fix)
Perfection isn’t necessary in many things we tackle. And, depending on our skill level, it may just be the impossible dream. A finished project or product is usually the better outcome even if it isn’t perfect.
But while on this walk with my husband (whose “stupid mistake” really wasn’t that bad), my mind, which was still firmly attached to the story I’m attempting to write, immediately went to the craft of writing. It jarred me to realize that in writing, unlike these other areas of endeavour, we really can’t cover up our mistakes.
Oh, we try! That’s what our first readers are for, dammit. If they are worth their salt, they will hone in on that plot detail that we hadn’t fully worked out, but that we thought (hoped) no one else would notice, or that Chapter 7 (the Bermuda Triangle of novel-writing) that we, basically, phoned in. In the early drafts, we wave our hands (brains) at that area of our work that is problematic and tell ourselves it’s okay. It’s fine. The mistake is well-hidden. But it isn’t. In writing fiction, stupid mistakes always show.*
The other tricky bit is that once we’ve worked with a writing project for a while, we can’t see the mistakes anymore. They hide from the writer, but pop out when a new reader comes along. And that’s not even getting into grammar and punctuation.
So fellow writers, edit. Revise. Find first readers who will spot the errors. Take their advice with an open heart. Do your best to perfect every sentence and each word. For if you are skillful (and lucky) people will be reading every one.
*I’m desperately trying to find the misatkes in this post.