Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mistakes vs. MISTAKES

Hi everyone,

Thanks to the Pens for inviting me back!

I think the basic question here is:

Is a mistake a bad thing if you learn from it?

And my answer might surprise you – especially after reading all the wonderful posts before mine. ‘cause I’m going to say yeah, some mistakes are truly horrible things, even if we learn big lessons from them.

In other words, there are mistakes and there are MISTAKES...


Letting my ex-husband cut my son’s hair when he was about five (my son, not my ex).

(this isn't my son or my ex but I couldn't resist -- a true rat tail!)

Reading a romance novel when you’re already lonely.

Painting the bathroom ceiling bright pink.

Doing a Japanese hair straightening treatment that left me looking like a scarecrow. (We make so very many mistakes in the name of vanity!)

Buying a house so close to the airport you could actually read the word “UNITED” as the plane passed by the kitchen window, shaking the house.

Calling your husband the wrong name during sex. (hey, I’m not saying these are all mistakes I’ve made!)

Missing your exit because you’re texting while driving. (ditto)

Telling your mother “maybe” when she asks you to do her a favor (ahem, my sweet child).

Eating the whole bag of BBQ potato chips. Again.


Spending a half million dollars (did you know credit cards could even go that high?!) on a remodel – which ended my love affair with the house, and my love affair with my husband (or maybe it was that name thing).

(yes, this was the outcome of my remodel -- so beautiful -- but do I miss it, what I now call my "marital house?" No, I really don't. Happy in a sweet little cottage now...)

Okay, I’ve been joking around here. But seriously, there are some mistakes that are almost impossible to get over. And I can think of a few of my own (besides the remodel from hell) – mistakes I TRULY wish, with all my heart, that I had not made. That I would like do-overs on. (Even though the lessons were good ones.)

But the examples below are even bigger mistakes, and much better than mine:

I’m sure you read earlier this year about the woman at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who lost her balance and fell into the Picasso painting “The Actor” -- lessening its value by literally MILLIONS of dollars. I’ve tried to imagine how that would feel. I can’t.

And in 2006, casino nut Steve Wynn, during a private showing of Picasso’s “Le Reve,” put his elbow through the canvas. This occurred just after he had negotiated a deal to sell the painting for $139 million (the deal fell through; go figure).

And even more serious and heartbreaking mistakes than those having to do with art and money… Like the kid who finds his dad’s gun in the closet and unintentionally shoots his friend. Or you lean down to pick something up off the floor of the car and swerve into the oncoming traffic and kill another driver (this happened to a friend of mine). Or a story I read in the paper years ago about a ten-year-old who went hunting with his parents and shot his mom in the face at close range.

Now I know these could be called “accidents” – and I admit that this topic got me wondering about the difference between a “mistake” and an “accident.”
According to Yahoo! Answers, there's a difference (I loved this – it was in response to a woman who asked if cheating on her boyfriend was a mistake or an accident):
“An accident… is something unavoidable. A mistake is something done consciously, intentionally, that doesn't seem like it will lead to trouble until after it's too late to correct it. In short, your cheating WAS a mistake. Now, if you - in some outlandish, unrealistic scenario - were walking around naked & you tripped, & another guy's penis broke your fall, then that would be an accident :).”

But seriously, in the “accidents” above, it was a MISTAKE for that stupid father to leave a gun where his child could get to it. And a MISTAKE to not pay attention while driving (ahem, texters). And a MISTAKE to take your child hunting before he is old enough to know what he’s doing. I mean good freaking grief!

Okay, enough! Hope we have all learned some big lessons from all our mistakes – and those of others. I have. I just added on a beautiful (little) addition to my cottage and paid cash for the whole thing. And I walk very, very slowly in art museums.


Mistake or Not: Can You Guess the Right Answer?

Rather than writing about why regrets are more painful than mistakes we've made, which several Pens have already written beautifully about, today I'm giving a QUIZ about my mistakes and regrets.

All of the items below might appear to have been mistakes. But were they really? Can you guess the ONE question where the answer is that this was a mistake I regret?


1. I bought a car because I loved it, even though I knew it was far from the most efficient or trustworthy car.

2. I spent the night in a sketchy Italian train station with my luggage straps wrapped around my arms so nobody could steal it if I fell asleep.

3. I dropped out of grad school, so I don't have a PhD I could have had.

4. I moved in with a man less than 6 months after we met.

5. I started taking my writing seriously in the year 2007.


1. Not a mistake. I wasted some money, sure, but I loved my VW Golf dearly, and wouldn't have done anything differently. Even with its seatbelt that broke repeatedly.

2. Not a mistake. True, I missed a train connection, but these things happen. I was backpacking with a friend at the time, so I wasn't alone. It wasn't the most comfortable night of my life, but it was one of the more memorable of months of traveling.

3. Not a mistake. It would have been a mistake to continue with the PhD. But I also don't think it was a mistake to start in the first place; I never would have had the opportunity to live in the fabulous cities of Seattle and Bath without this detour, and I did learn a lot about myself.

4. Not a mistake. 9 years later, here I am with the love of my life.

5. MISTAKE. Why hadn't I begun taking my writing seriously sooner? For far too long, I made the mistake of treating myself as a hobbiest with my interests related to "non-professional" pursuits. I tried out many majors in college, but it never occured to me that any art could be more than an elective. It wasn't until my late 20s that I figured out I could be a professional designer and photographer, and until my 30s that I realized writing novels could be more than a hobby I tinkered with. I may be making mistakes as I find my way, but I have no more regrets.

-- Gigi

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Martha Mulls Over Mistakes

Picking up where Lisa left off....a few years ago, I worked for a center with a mission to improve end-of-life care. While I escaped behind number crunching, my coworkers had front row seats to our patients' last days.

As expected, the patients who were conscious enough to talk often ruminated over their lives.

The trips they didn't take because there was no time.
The girl they never talked to because they feared rejection.
The job they let slip by because it was too risky.

There was no lament over having suffered embarrassment, indignity, or downfall. No bemoaning brushes with poverty or pain.

There is something comforting in knowing that in a long life, at the end of days, with all the perspective and experiences a human can possibly have, the only mistakes you regret are the ones you didn't let yourself make.

So you know where I'm going with this, right?

Make 'em. Make tons of them. So what? The older, wiser you won't care.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Better a Mistake than a Regret

Mistake is such a funny term, it can encompass everything from...wearing the wrong shoes with an outfit to marrying the wrong person. Some mistakes are just blips, but some have lasting impact.

There’s this instinctive need in everyone to stop ourselves from making a mistake. And I know I try to protect my children and have them learn from my mistakes. That “I know better than you, I’ve already made that mistake, let me help you” talk never works. (Much to my dismay, although I keep trying) Everyone has to learn from their own missteps.

Sometimes the missteps take me in directions I’d never even considered despite my unswerving “worst case scenario” outlook, nobly handed down from my grandmother to my mother to me.

Have you ever been on the cusp of a decision, wondering which path to chose, wondering what is the “right” decision? Sometimes nearly crippled by indecision.

I remember finally figuring out a core truth for myself. I honestly don’t recall what the decision was about but I remember weighing the pros and cons (and yes I will do this frequently) teeter-tottering back and forth as one side got heavier in my mind. Until I was finally struck by what I really needed to do.

Now I gauge most decisions by this hard and fast question: Will I regret it if I don’t _____?

So have I made mistakes? Of course, but as much as I occasionally regret the outcome, I don’t regret the choice.


ps. So when that mistake knocks you flat, just pick yourself up (get treatment if need be–kidding, mostly) and then move on because that’s what humans do...we evolve.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Other People’s Mistakes

L.G.C. Smith

Last week’s posts established that we are a largely functional lot able to view our mistakes philosophically and move on. Nothing screams sanity louder than the willingness to take personal responsibility for one’s mistakes. We also know we are deserving of love and grace, despite our mistakes, and we learn to forgive and do better next time.

There is one category of mistakes, however, where precious little grace operates. These are Other People’s Mistakes, and by ‘People,” I include technology, because there is always a person behind the machine (so far), and Nature, because it can be so seriously inconvenient. Other People’s Mistakes are much more infuriating than our own. Even so, most of us are shockingly capable of forgiving major transgressions committed by people we love. These are not the types of mistakes I am talking about. I am referring to the day-to-day torment inflicted by other people’s stupid lazy carelessness. Here are some I find particularly maddening.

Mistakes of Nature

Mosquitos. Gnats. No-see-ums. Poisonous snakes and spiders. Sweat. Pimples. Super-efficient metabolisms in times of plenty. Super Volcanoes. Super bugs. Ice ages. Asteroids colliding with the earth. Florida. Most of Texas. (Asteroids landing in either of those states are off the list.) Skin that sunburns. Gingko fruit and durian. Sticker burrs and foxtails.

And so much more.

Driving Mistakes

Talking on the phone (hands free or not), eating, putting on makeup, picking things up off the floor, letting a dog sit on your lap, wearing earphones and/or playing music too loudly to hear what’s going on around you (like emergency vehicles climbing up your ass because you’re in the way) and, above all, TEXTING while driving.

Not signaling when turning or changing lanes, and signaling when not turning or changing lanes. Slow drivers on the freeway anywhere but in the slow lane. Worse yet, planting your pokey butt in the fast lane and setting the cruise control at 55 MPH. (This happens a lot in Texas, which is one reason I don’t care if an asteroid takes it out.) Not looking over your shoulder when you change lanes. Never using your mirrors to see what’s going on behind you. Ignoring motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians. Stopping cold in the middle of any road with traffic behind you. (I don’t care if you’re lost or confused. Keep moving!) Stopping at the end of entrance ramps onto highways and interstates because you don’t know the difference between ‘merge’ and ‘yield.’ Failing to zipper properly (aka ‘taking turns’) when lanes collapse. Again, Texans, this means you. Your egos are not on the line here, y’all. It's just how traffic moves.

Geez, I could write a frickin’ book about other people’s idiotic and dangerous driving mistakes. Especially in Austin. I don’t understand the problem there. People are, for the most part, kinder and friendlier than just about anywhere I’ve been. They’re interesting, clever, and fun. Put them behind the wheel of a vehicle and they go from zero to TSTL in 1.8 seconds. The only thing I can figure is that it must be part of the Keep Austin Weird ethos. If anyone in Austin is listening, you need new slogans for drivers. I’m fond of “This is the Interstate, not your grandaddy’s back forty! Look!”

Mistakes Made by Government, Large Corporations, Vendors and Credit Score Keepers

You know what I’m talking about here. You push the wrong button somewhere while buying golf shoes on-line, and the next thing you know, you’re billed for a Today’s Special! Lighted Globe showing all World Premier Golf Courses at the special one-time only price of $299. You didn’t cancel in three business days because you didn’t know about it because, oh, my, you didn’t obsessively check your credit card activity online every single day. You spend the next two weeks trying to correct the problem via the phone and e-mail, and you finally think it’s been taken care of. Someone in Customer Service assures you it has been. You double-check your credit card company.

Then you get billed for it twice.

So you stop payment from your credit card company with all the correspondence and phoning that entails. Pretty soon you begin getting bills direct from the company you bought the original golf shoes from (which you had to return because they sent you 9 Narrow instead of 9 Medium, which they were out of -- GAH!). You do your best. Nothing changes. A few months later you’re getting collections calls from pushy people who don’t care about what happened because their only job is to get you to fork over the $299, plus the cost of the shoes you returned, plus restocking fees, plus late fees, plus collections service fees.

After a year of being harassed, you have your lawyer send the original company a letter, and it lands on Someone Reasonable’s desk, and everything gets cleared up. You even have letters sent to all the credit score bureaus, and you follow up and are assured all is well. There are no bad marks on your credit score.

A year later you come up for a tax audit because you didn’t pay state sales tax on some golf shoes and a globe you ordered from an out-of-state company.

Four years on, you try to refinance your house, and you can’t get a lower rate because there’s an unpaid bill for $482.19 from an Internet golf store.

These kinds of Other People’s Mistakes can tempt the sanest, most forgiving and self-aware among us to fantasize about going off the grid.

Oh, screw that. There are too many Mistakes of Nature off the grid.

There is no hope. We cannot escape Other People’s Mistakes. All we can do is rant.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Making Dessert from Disaster

Will our dear readers believe today's flubbed attempt to process our guest's post on time was was a deliberate attempt to reenact our theme of mistakes? That the PensFatales dedication to this topic goes above and beyond words? That we don't talk the talk, we talk the talk? Hmmmmm...we think...not.

Luckily our guest today, Joelle Carbonneau, is all too familiar with mistakes judging by the content of her post and the title of her new novel, SKATING AROUND THE LAW, coming out next week (woohoo! Congratulations, Joelle!). From one mistake-maven to another, hopefully she will forgive us!

Thanks for much for the Pens Fatales for inviting me to blog today. It is totally appropriate that I am blogging on Mistakes Week, because – yes – I’m prone to making them. I have the tendency to trip over my own feet when wearing high heels, save documents in places on my computer that guys at MIT would never be able to find and occasionally, I have been known to bake oatmeal cookies with no flour.

Funny about the oatmeal cookie thing. On a good day, I’m a decent cook. However, this time the cookies lost all shape and melted all over the cookie sheet into a big mess. After one look, my inclination was to pitch the whole mess into the garbage can and start over. Only, I am a touch crazy and I took a taste. Yum. I then shoveled the crumbly mess into a bowl and used it to top ice cream. Double yum.

Baking is not the only area in which I’ve found a mistake can turn into an unlikely opportunity. A few years ago, I set aside a manuscript I’d been editing and started writing a totally different kind of book for kicks. It was the most fun I’d ever had writing. Any goofy or strange idea that popped into my head went onto the page. And to top it off, I was writing in a genre I hadn’t studied much.

Everyone always says you should study the genre before you start writing. I used to believe that. Scratch that. I still do. Only, I made a mistake. I didn’t really know the subgenre I was writing in when I started. Heck, I don’t think I’d ever heard the term for the subgenre. Belonging to RWA, I knew all the romance subgenres, but I wasn’t writing a romance. (To tell the truth, I was bad at writing romances….and I tried. Another mistake, but one I learned from.) So instead of knowing what I was writing and making sure that I created a story that fit the expectations of the editors and readers of the genre, I just wrote.

Once I was done writing, I realized I had no idea what I had written. Yes, Skating Around The Law was a mystery, but what kind of mystery? Turns out I wrote a book that follows the cozy mystery guidelines but isn’t really a cozy. Well crap. I’d made a HUGE mistake. Everyone knows that it is easier to get a book published if it falls squarely in one genre. Yes, people blend genres all the time, but editors have a harder time selling those books to their editorial board because they are riskier. Double crap.

And yet, like the flattened oatmeal cookies, I couldn’t bring myself to throw that manuscript into the trash. It didn’t taste so good on ice cream, but I loved it. Turns out my agent and editor did, too. The one thing I’ve learned from the experience is that sometimes mistakes are more than good lessons. Sometimes they are opportunities. You just have to take a step back from the mistake and decide which one it is. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find your mistake is both. I bet if you think about it, you have a few tasty mistakes out there of your own that I’d love to hear about.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Single Red Flower

--Adrienne Miller

It’s my birthday. 
If you are reading this on Thursday, chances are, right now I am hurtling down I-5, through California’s central valley. The stereo is probably blasting The Killers - Live from Royal Albert Hall. Two little boys are strapped tight into their car seats and my husband is dozing off in the passenger seat, cause we’re headed to Disneyland! 

It’s not a biggie birthday. No zeros or fives involved. No rush to complete the list of things I said I would do before I got to it. There are no commemorative t-shirts when you turn thirty-four. But I’m still going to Disneyland. 

This is my favorite picture from Disneyland. A single red flower in a sea of pale purple. I love it.
I spotted this little guy as we were walking past the main gate area on our last trip. He caught my eye, and I snapped off about two dozen photos before I got this one--photography is not a natural talent of mine. 
Did the gardener make a mistake? Was it a simple case of grabbing the wrong bloom at 3am? Or, did she put it there hoping someone like me would find it, a little reminder that, even in an ocean of thousands, it is still possible to stand out? Does it even matter?
No, not really. Because like most mistakes, it’s not about the action itself; it’s the perspective we choose afterwards that matters.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It's a Do-Over

--by Juliet

I like to think of mistakes quite literally as miss-takes, things gone awry. It implies the possibility of a do-over, something to be learned from, rather than regretted.

I’ve made a whole lot of mistakes, but I have very few regrets. In part, this is because I’m superstitious: I love the current version of my life so much that I fear what it might look like if I’d done even one thing differently.

Like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings triggering a tsunami, or whatever that theory actually says…What would my life be like if I’d gotten up the nerve to teach in Malawi? If I’d stayed in Spain with my Chilean lover? If I hadn’t married my now ex-husband…? These are turning points that make me look back and wonder, from time to time, what an alternate life would have been like. In my best moments I think it would have been a similarly wonderful life, just a different version. In my darkest moments, I feel like I made it this far only by the skin of my teeth....That’s when I thank my lucky stars that things turned out as they did, mistakes and all.

One of the hardest things for me as a parent was (and continues to be) letting my son make his own mistakes. We want our loved ones to learn from our experiences--and certainly our mistakes-- but everyone has to make their own errors to really learn from them, deep down.

I love watching a small child trying to master a new skill. They might get frustrated, even cry, but in general they’ll circle back around, trying again and again, and repeating mistakes until they finally get it right. Infants trying to walk --responding to the unique human imperative to pull themselves up and walk on their hind feet-- won’t stop just because they screw up the first hundred times. You might hold their pudgy little hands in yours, but they’re the ones who have to do the hard work and fall on their butts repeatedly, striving for bipedal balance. Eventually they’ll get it on their own – and when they do, their confidence soars, and they beam with pride and wonder.

Our mistakes teach us things. And not just mechanical things like walking, or reading, or riding a bike, but big things. Really big things.

It is, at least in part, by making stupid, thoughtless, even cruel mistakes that we learn compassion for others. Those cringe-worthy mistakes we’ve all committed can help us understand when we witness another person acting their meanest, lowest self. Our mistakes teach us how to ask forgiveness, and to forgive others. How to break hearts, and survive a broken heart.

In fiction, of course, mistakes, shame, regrets, and the possibility of redemption… these are all great grist for the writing mill. And as they say, all writing is, to some extent, autobiography: I know a lot of authors who write about something they’d wish they’d done differently in life. They allow their characters to do it again, take another crack at it, change things, and have different results. It’s a cathartic, fictional, do-over.

A new take on that old miss-take.

This picture has nothing to do with this essay, but it's my niece Erendira Ibarra with her first magazine cover. Cool, huh? I'm very proud ;-)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rachael's Mistake

Justin was my mistake.

Mistakes happen, don't they? No malice aforethought, no pre-planning, you just end up screwing something up and you never planned to.

I was half in love with Justin for years. Blond and tall, with a face like an angel (I don't that say that lightly -- he actually DID have an angelic face, if an angel can have dreamy eyes and a wicked, knowing smile). But we were just friends for a long time. I helped him with girl trouble, and he supplied me with cigarettes as we lay on our backs in his country driveway, watching the stars.

Years later, he came to me. As a friend. We spent an afternoon together, just talking, and by the evening, we were in love. Head over heels -- it was big.

The problem was that I wasn't free. The timing was all wrong. I was in the middle of trying to fix a relationship that ended up in freefall, as it should have, but I didn't know that then. I only knew that Justin fit into small, discrete pockets of my life, when I could hide him in my treehouse in the Oakland hills. But oh, I loved him hard. Too hard.

I told him we couldn't be together. That it was the wrong time. I broke his heart, and mine, too. I did it over the phone, mistake number one. Mistake number two, I stopped answering his phone calls.

It was a supremely assholic move. I loved him -- why couldn't I just talk to him? Try to explain more why we couldn't be together? I was scared that I was doing the wrong thing. I was also scared I was doing the right thing.

I wrapped myself in the huge red flannel shirt I'd borrowed from him, the one with the worn spot at the shoulder, where he would absent-mindedly rub his chin when he was thinking, and I sat on my porch, smoking, listening to the phone ring.

Pearl Buck said, "Every great mistake has a halfway moment, a split second when it can be recalled and perhaps remedied." That was my moment. I let it pass, unremedied.

Finally, after many phone calls that I let go to voice mail, Justin left a message saying he'd seen me in a dream, and he'd let me go. I cried and cried, knowing I'd done it all the wrong way. I've gone on to dream of him many times over the years, and every time it finally feels real -- I tell him how many times I've dreamed of this moment -- I'm ecstatic to see him -- I grab him and apologize for the way I hurt him and he smiles at me with those sweet, sweet eyes, and everything in the world is right.

Then I wake and realize it didn't happen. My mistake sits there, grimacing at me in the dark, and I'm unable to do anything about it. Sometimes I fantasize about posting his last name online in an entry like this, because I can't find him -- maybe he'd find himself and contact me. But why? So I can apologize for making one of the biggest mistakes of my life? For letting a love that was more lovely than most others I've known go because I couldn't make the timing work? And doing it badly, furthermore? Or maybe his wife would end up Googling him and ask jealous questions, and I'd end up feeling even more stupid.

Or maybe he'd never know, and never care. Maybe he never thinks of me at all. That would be, basically, what I deserve. Justin and I only had perhaps six weeks together, all told, over several years. And it's not like I want to be with him. I love where I am, and I love who I married. Our love is the biggest I've known.

But I regret the mistake I made by hurting someone I loved in an unnecessarily cruel way. I should have answered his calls. I know I should have. (I even wrote about HERE six years ago, and mailed a letter to his mother's address, with the hope it would get to him, but I don't know if it ever reached him. Oh, I hope it did.)

I gave the shirt to Goodwill years ago in a fit of closet-cleaning. I purged other things, too, love letters from other people that I knew I'd never want to read, pictures of times I didn't care to remember. But I made a mistake in the way I broke up with Justin, and I made a mistake by getting rid of that flannel shirt. Damn it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mistake? Nah, Just Self-Expression

by Sophie


I'm hardly a perfectionist. I'm happy to take shortcuts, and the phrase "good enough is good enough" could have been coined by me.

Early on I came to understand that this personality quirk was beyond my control, something I was born with. How else to explain my mother's willingness to rip out a seam - several times if necessary - to get a fabric print repeat to line up right...when I viewed my own sewing projects as approximations, good-natured efforts whose flaws were not only to be expected, but inevitable?

Sewing became a fertile place to work out the meaning of mistakes - long before I knew that's what I was doing. Were they evidence of a flawed character, a moral deficit? This was back in the days when our main goal when sewing was to produce garments that could pass for store-bought, a notion that was hard to shed decades later when the publisher I was working for produced books on crafts that were meant to look unapologetically, intentionally home-made. In 1978 - a year when, at age fifteen, I sewed much of my wardrobe - each mistake had to be reviewed with a critical eye: could that skewed patch pocket, that bowed line of topstitching, that lopsided dart go unnoticed, or would I have to re-do it to avoid the dreaded home-sewn look? I knew what my mother would say: rip, re-do. Her own projects from that era - I remember a peasant blouse trimmed with navy jacobean embroidery, as well as innumerable plaid shirts with perfectly aligned repeat matches - were utterly above reproach.

I think one of the things that appealed to me about quilting, when I took it up seriously over a decade ago, was that there was room for both ends of the spectrum. Certainly there were and are quilters for whom the perfect stitch is an endless quest.

But while editing copy for quilt books for C&T, the publisher for whom I worked, I found out something marvelous: early American quilters viewed a pursuit of perfection as an offense to God. To ensure that their quilts would not be guilty of such an affront, it was common to pierce one's finger and bleed on an inside seam. That drop of blood was like a humility offering; by allowing the stain in the finished quilt one was admitting one was imperfect.

I find that notion beautiful. While I never bled on my quilts (despite stabbing myself so many times I had a permanent callus on several of my fingers) I did enjoy finding the errors and then - deliberately and almost rebelliously - letting them stay.

I don't quilt any more, because writing takes up all my free time. But I do love all the quilts I kept, and I have them hung throughout the house. I know where the mistakes are. I sort of love them.

Have you heard of the Gee's Bend Quilts? If not, take a look - they are unlike anything you have ever seen. They literally changed not just my understanding of quilting but of home-making and of life in its entirety. These poor Alabama women undertook to make functional, practical quilts to keep themselves and their loved one's warm at night - but they did so with wild, unfettered abandon, putting aside any notion of what a patch should be, or a block, or a quilting template or a color palette. Nothing was considered prescribed. None of them judged each other's work unworthy. From the site: "The women consider the process of "piecing" the quilt "top" to be highly personal."

I was blessed with an opportunity to see these quilts when the exhibit came to San Francisco. I'll never forget seeing them hung in the museum. I read stories of grief - a woman who made her dead husband's work jeans and coveralls into a quilt that she slept under to feel as though he was close - and joy, and I loved the women's words which the curator of the show had wisely made available alongside their work. There was no talk of "mistakes."

Some day, I'll return to quilting. I'm not sure what I'll make first. But I hope I can bring a fraction of the passion to my work that the Gee's Bend women possess. And I hope that I can take up my needle again without letting the thought of mistakes slow me down.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Telly, Telly, Telly

You know the Pens always have the coolest visitors, right?

Well, if you had any doubt about today's guest, Sean Ferrell, just read what Publisher's Weekly has to say about NUMB, which came out last month from Harper Perennial:

"In Ferrell's offbeat debut, an amnesiac joins a Texas circus where his inability to feel pain makes him a big-top hit and earns him the name Numb. After a haunting experience wrestling a lion, Numb and his best friend, Mal, give up the circus for life in New York, where they live in a crappy hotel and make a living as a lowrent one-man freak show. When Numb lands a talent agent and begins to move up through the layers of celebrity, he leaves Mal behind for a cast of characters including a blind artist girlfriend and bad news model Emilia. But in Numb's world, nothing hurts much at all, so Mal comes back and predictably turns things upside down..."

Is that a must-read or what? Sean is the author of prize-winning short fiction and lives in New York City. Read more here.

I have a friend who still gets mad at her sister when she recalls how, when she found out something my friend had done, something their mother wouldn't be pleased with, would stand across the room, point a finger, and whisper, “Telly, telly, telly.” My friend said it was all she needed to hear and she would lose her mind and run to her mother to reveal the deed herself.

Secrets have power. It takes effort to keep one inside. That effort charges the secret, making containment even more difficult, requiring more power, adding more power, and so on. An infinite feedback loop, one that promises to burst with revelation.

There is one way to cap the power of a secret permanently, to contain that energy with no hope of escape, to tap that energy and focus it in one tiny point, a singularity of interest. How to do this: Hint at the secret, write it down, and then—here's the hard part—walk away.

This is called “fiction.”

As a writer you may have an idea or a belief, a way of looking at the world. This is your truth. Your truth is your secret. If you were to blurt it out, walk around with it on a sandwich board, you might be listened to. Or you might be ignored. Or mocked. Or shunned. But if you hint at the secret, hint at your truth, write it down, and walk away...

Fiction that gives away the secret easily is, at best, a folktale; at worst, propaganda. Fiction that hints at the secret and then walks away is the fiction to which we return. Again, and again. Stories that point to a truth, but don't pin it down, are those stories that bend and shift as they get older. They aren't trite, they don't age. Stories that hint at the secrets they hold but don't plaster the walls with the answers are the ones that matter beyond their own era.

Was Hamlet mad, or faking it?

What does the white whale represent?

What is happiness? Truth? Wisdom? Reality? Innocence? Guilt?

A secret screamed from the rooftops is noise pollution. A secret hinted at is a lure. People go to great lengths to find out answers. They'll eavesdrop on conversations. They'll sneak through one another's correspondence. They'll read novels, stories, plays, poems, again and again and again. They know the story, but they want the secrets. The most successful stories are those that answer questions, but not all of them. The ones that give you most of what you looked for, that pull so many of the threads together that you can see the entire tapestry. But later, upon reflection, you realize that there is something the story is doing beyond the conclusion of plot, something beyond the character's needs and wants, something deeper.

The story is standing across the room, pointing a finger, whispering, “Telly, telly, telly.”

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gigi Has a Secret

Well, this isn't exactly a secret, seeing as I'd share it with anyone who brings up anything remotely related to the subject. But I needed to find a way to talk about this amazing pair of boots I found last week (at left), so here's my not-so-secret secret pertaining to these boots:

I'm obsessed with Emma Peel from the '60s TV show The Avengers.

Only a few years after Della Street could only be Perry Mason's long-suffering secretary, Emma Peel was the equal -- and arguably superior -- spy partner of John Steed. (Though I was sad to learn the actress Diana Rigg was paid far less than Patric Macnee, but that's another story.)

Emma Peel was the epitome of the strong woman who was both beautiful and brilliant, not to mention able to physically incapacitate even the strongest bad guy. All while having an amazing sense of style.

Yes, watching old Avengers episodes makes me feel that all things in life are possible.

When I found this kick-ass pair of mustard-yellow buckled boots last week, I immediately thought of Emma Peel. I buy shoes rarely, but I knew I had to have these.

Luckily, they passed the important comfort test. I don't believe in wearing uncomfortable shoes -- who knows when one will have to chase a bad guy, right? Oh, this is real life? In that case, who knows when one will have to walk 5 blocks up a hill in San Francisco. There's really no need for impractical shoes.

But these boots have it all: rubber soled comfort along with the mod style of Emma Peel. When I slipped them on, I did feel I could accomplish anything.

Which turns out to be a good thing, because I'm in the midst of a major overhaul of the mystery I'm writing. Sometimes it's so overwhelming I think it would be much easier to just give up. But would Emma Peel give up? Of course not. She'd slip on these boots and know that all things are possible.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Martha's Sekrit Secret

When I was a kid, I reveled in books and like any egoist worth her salt, I would often declare upon finishing, "That was good but I figured out the secret [twist/identity/bad guy] way before the main character did."

Now, as a writer, I realize - duh. That was probably the author's intent.

The release of a secret, the discovery of a truth, is a cathartic experience that we crave.

I used to hoard information in my stories, saving them for a Shyamalan twist at the very end that would leave the readers gasping.

I now believe it's more effective to let the reader in on the secret by the first third of the novel, a secret that the main character doesn't know, a secret the main character should know, has to know.

Why save a twist for the end when you can leave the reader yearning for catharsis with every turn of the page?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

If I had a secret....

I try to be a fairly open person. I don't always succeed. I mean what I say, which is not to say that I am mean when I say it. I respect honesty. It's really difficult for me to lie. Really, really difficult. I may obfuscate, misdirect and evade answering directly but I don't lie.

Which brings me to secrets...which are frequently covered by lies.

So, if I had a secret, I couldn't tell you what it was because then it wouldn't be a secret anymore.

And I hate lying so you know it would be true.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Name Quest, Part III

The Secret Saint

L.G.C. Smith

As part of an extended series of posts that originated with the topic of Names, I’ve been chronicling my discoveries about where my last name came from. Two weeks ago, I left off with the question of whom the not-so-randomly distributed Coddington and Cuddington parishes of the English Midlands might have been named for.

The twelfth-century mention of a St. Cotta in association with the Anglo-Saxon minster at Breedon-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire spurred me to try to find more traces of this elusive fellow. I boned up on British history in the early medieval period. I stuck my toe into the scholarship on the early English church. I became interested in Anglo-Saxon hagiography. Eventually, I discovered the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England database (

Using all these tools, I found a shadowy mid-seventh-century Northumbrian nobleman and abbot who looks like a candidate for the source of the place name Coddington. Here’s a summary of the evidence from textual sources.

Vita Sancti Wilfrithi or Life of St. Wilfrid, attributed to Eddius Stephanus, or Stephen of Ripon, early eighth century, 709-720 AD.

Wilfrid was a major force in organizing the early Anglo-Saxon Church in the mid-late seventh century. He was a hard-line devotee of Roman, as opposed to Celtic, practice, and he was a man of extraordinary energy and administrative ability. He also sounds like kind of a pill – not a meek and beneficent sort of saint. He comes across through the ages as arrogant, argumentative and relentless; the sort of man you might respect but not necessarily like. He’s also one of the most readily documented figures in Britain in the seventh century.

Wilfrid got his start in the Church when he was fourteen-years-old. He went to the Northumbrian Queen Eanflæd, wife of King Oswiu, to ask to be allowed to give himself to the service of God. Eanflæd granted him permission to do so, assigning him to “One of the king’s most loving and faithful companions, a nobleman called Cudda, had also resolved, on account of his paralysis, to give up worldly ambition and dedicate himself to monastic life at Lindisfarne. The queen commended the newly arrived Wilfrid to join him in the service of God and act as his servant.” (from Webb, J. F.; Farmer, D. H., eds. (1998), The Age of Bede: Bede — Life of Cuthbert; Eddius Stephanus — Life of Wilfrid; Bede — Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow; The Anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrith; with the Voyage of St Brendan (Revised ed.), London: Penguin Books.)

Wilfrid is an important link in the scarce and scattered mentions of Cudda. Because we know the dates of Wilfrid’s life, we can broadly estimate when Cudda lived to see how that correlates to what we know about the seventh century foundations of the Coddington parishes. Wilfrid lived from 633-709 AD, so in 647 when he was fourteen, Cudda was clearly an adult. We don’t know how old he was, but it seems reasonable, based on Stephanus’s text, to assume he might have been considerably older than Wilfrid. It’s well within the realm of probability that he would have been old enough to take a lead in organizing the Coddington minsters in the late 620s when the Cheshire sites first appear in church records.

Bede’s Life of Cuthbert (from The Age of Bede, cited above)

Cudda is also mentioned in hagiographical material on St. Cuthbert, but in quite a different manner. In contrast to the rather modern sounding factual report from Stephanus, Bede ties Cudda directly to the miracle of Cuthbert’s incorruptible body. In Chapter 17, Bede reports this tale, which he had directly from “Herefrith, a sincerely devout priest and present abbot of Lindisfarne.” Cuthbert reputedly gave these instructions to the monks of his community when he knew he was dying: “When God takes my soul, bury me here close to the oratory, on the south side and to the east of that holy cross I myself put up. To the north of the oratory you will find a stone coffin hidden under the turf, a present from the holy Abbot Cudda. Put my body in it, wrapped in the cloth you will find there.”

If this is the same Cudda who was Wifrid’s master, and I think it is, it’s unlikely he gave Cuthbert this stone coffin. He was probably dead long before Cuthbert came to Lindisfarne. However, I don’t think the thrust of this text is primarily historical. Its purpose appears to me to be to link a lesser saint, Cudda, with Cuthbert, who was a much bigger deal. Whether it was Bede or his informants who sought to bolster Cudda’s cult is impossible to say. Someone was tending to keeping Cudda’s memory alive. Perhaps the center of his cult was the shrine of St. Cotta at Breedon-on-the-Hill, which lies in the center of Mercian territory around which the Coddington parishes are located.

It’s significant that Cudda is identified here as an abbot and not a priest or bishop. Abbots didn’t have to be ordained, nor did they necessarily give up their lands and secular responsibilities. Later in the seventh century, both royal and noble families founded monasteries run by members of their families, including women. Monastic rule was not uniform in the first half of the seventh century. As the Anglo-Saxon Church came into being, there were a lot of irregular practices, including married clergy. Being an abbot was as much about administration as it was about teaching.

No mention is made of where Cudda’s minster or minsters might have been. Of the known early Northumbrian minsters (with the exception of Lindisfarne), most were founded in the last half of the century, and he isn’t on the lists of abbots. Bede and other Northumbrian chroniclers would not necessarily have been interested in or able to find out as much about Mercian minsters, partly because Northumbria and Mercia were rival kingdoms through most of the seventh century. Also, the Mercian kings didn’t convert until quite late. The Coddingtons look like good candidates for Cudda’s network of minsters, even if Bede might not have been familiar with them in the early eighth century.

Another very old text, the Durham Liber Vitae, which is believed to have first laid upon the altar at Lindisfarne and moved with the monks when the late eighth century Viking attacks forced them to flee with St. Cuthbert’s incorrupt body, eventually settling their community at Durham, contains a list of abbots. Cudda is the second name on this list. He wasn’t an abbot at Lindisfarne, but if he retired there, as the story from Stephanus goes, and he was an abbot, it would make sense to find his name there.

The last text where Cudda is mentioned in in Willibrord’s Calendar of Echternach. Willibrord was a Northumbrian missionary to Frisia. He was a student of Wilfrid’s and he included several Northumbrian saints in his calendar. Cudda appears here as Cydda (I’ll spare you the linguistics this time, but it’s almost certainly the same name) and his Feast Day is given as July 28th or 29th. No one seems to know who he is, but I would lay odds this is Wilfrid’s teacher, the venerable Abbot Cudda, a Northumbrian nobleman who revived an older British monastic network that had been laid low by Æthelfrith of Bernicia – who was probably a cousin. Cudda nurtured some of the earliest English minsters in an era scholars know little about.

It’s impossible to say if the story I’ve constructed is historically accurate or not, but I’ve been astounded to find it hold up, strengthen even, as I continue to learn more about this period of history. Starting from a name, I discovered a fascinating tale that connects farther back than I could ever have dreamed. Cudda was all but lost, but his name persisted for fourteen hundred years, concealing secrets for me to slowly untangle. It’s been a satisfying quest, and it’s not done yet. At some point, I’ll have to write this up in academic lingo with all the proper arguments, references and citations. It would be nice someday to see St. Cudda’s name back on the lists of Anglo-Saxon saints.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Street Side Confessionals

--Adrienne Miller

I’m going to go way out on a limb here and assume that you’ve never killed a guy in a knife fight in the alleyway behind a Gas-N-Sip. I know, it’s a big show of faith. Especially for some of you. I don’t need to name names. You know who you are. 
And if you did, I don’t want to hear about it. People have called me all kinds of names, but I’m still pretty proud that “accessory after the fact” hasn’t been one of them. 

unless you’re Ron Burgundy and the Channel 4 news crew, I don’t want to know about it
Chances are your secrets are more banal. You lust after someone who’s off limits. You daydream of forgetting all your adult responsibilities and indulging in all manner of reckless and drunken revelry. Maybe you get a little thrill every time you forget to empty everything out of your basket at the store. 
What ever your particular kink is, how tiny or big, chances are that there are legions of others that share it. But it sure doesn’t feel that way at the time, does it? While your dirty little secret is burning up inside you, you’ve convinced yourself that you’re a freak, and, if anyone--anyone normal, that is-- were ever to ferret out your secret shame, an outcast.
While I’m not Catholic, most of my father’s family is, and I grew up intrigued by all the ritual and symbolism of the faith. What really fascinated me was the confessional. Every week my grandmother stepped in to that little box and let out all of her secrets. Then she would come out, kneel down for a while, fingers and lips moving in tandem around her well-worn rosary beads. And that was that. All transgressions forgiven. She was done, and off we went into the van for a day a fun. 

Now, I’m sure there are layers of complexity that my mind didn’t fully wrap around. Shades of shame and judgement that as a non-participant I glossed over. But, hell, I still love the basic concept.
I don’t want to offend, but imagine a secular confessional, a place that you could pop in and anonymously unburden yourself. I don’t mean like therapy, nothing too deep. Surface guilt only. Just the little candle flames of private shame, that if left alone will build over time into a raging wild fire. I'm imagining instant, soul-relieving gratification. Something along the lines of,
“I didn’t want the guy at the drive thru to think I was a fat pig, so I made it sound like one of the two hamburgers I was buying was for someone else.”
“I pretended that someone was beeping through on call-waiting so I could get off the phone with my mother again.”
Or if you’re me,
God knows I want to be cool, but I just can’t stop loving Bryan Adams. Seriously, have you tried not singing along to Straight from the Heart? It’s nearly impossible!”
don’t judge me

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

You Can Tell Me Juliet

People tell me things. Secret things.

When I work as a muralist, I spend so much time in people’s private space they start to speak in front of me as though I were a piece of furniture--leaving few subjects, however lewd or illegal, unmentioned. Often lonely housewives –and in one case, a lonely househusband—follow me around while I paint, treating me as a trusted confidante. Before that, I was a Social Worker, which essentially means that I was underpaid to hear –and interpret, and keep—my clients’ secrets. And even prior to that I was an anthropologist; while I was asking about boring things like employment choices and settlement issues, my informants would tell me all sorts of private, intimate goodies that were ever so much more fun than any questions I could come up with.

(As a novelist, I might use some of these stories as inspiration, but only after I’ve twisted and molded them so that no one would ever recognize them.)

The truth is, they’re right to talk to me. Because I’m really good at keeping secrets.

For one thing, I’m deficient in gossiping abilities. I was an outcast in high school, where a lot of these skills are honed, and I never developed the right attitude towards the subject. I listen intently and then go on about my business, completely forgetting that the really juicy part about gossip is turning around and telling the next person, preferably while enhancing and radicalizing said tidbits of rumor and hearsay.

But mostly I'm good at keeping secrets because I believe we have a right to our surreptitious sides. Our dark desires. Our furtive fantasies. Our hopelessly nerdy needs. I’m not talking about secrets born of shame and imposed silence; harmful directives to hush about family disgraces, or terrible truths left unsaid...not at all.

Rather, I’m thinking of those undisclosed, mysterious parts of ourselves that we take out only at very special times: when we are alone and safe, or when allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to someone very special. These secrets are tiny, gold-foil packages to be unwrapped and savored in stone-clad garret rooms, guarded by iron doors and lit only by the subtle glow of candles. They are magical, private little gifts that become distorted only when others convince us that it’s wrong to keep them close to our hearts.

So keep your secrets, at least a few. Let them bring a mysterious smile to your lips, an inexplicable sparkle to your eye, a surreptitious pounding to your heart. They’re yours, and only yours.

Unless you decide to share. And if you do, I’m your gal. I probably won’t even remember, anyway, and if I do, I promise: I’ll wrap them in gold foil, let them bring a Mona Lisa smile to my lips, and keep them safe.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Rachael Confesses All the Time

I'm a compulsive confessor.

Which isn't to say I don't want to keep secrets. I do. I plan to keep secrets all the time. It would be a lot easier not to tell Lala that I hit a post while driving her car. I just plan on not telling. And sure enough, as soon as she walks in the door, I go red in the face and say, "I dented your car -- I wasn't going to tell you but now I am," as fast as I can string the words together.

It's as if as soon as I have the thought, "don't tell," I get this wild compulsion to TELL RIGHT NOW. I tell too much, more than anyone wants to hear. If I'm late, I don't say gracefully, "Sorry, traffic." I say, "Oh, my God, I'm sorry, I completely forgot today was the day, and I didn't remember until I got the Google reminder, and by then I'd walked the dogs and had to take a shower, and then I broke a glass and had to sweep it up, and then I couldn't find your address, but BOY, am I sorry."

Even online, there have been times I've confessed to things perhaps I shouldn't have. I just did a Google search on Yarnagogo (my other blog) + Confession, and I got a whole list of 'em. And thanks to the miracle of the internet, I've now remembered: a truly awkward kiss; the time I tried to take a photo of myself in the elevator at HarperCollins and dropped it instead, breaking into pieces that I picked up JUST before the door glided open to reveal my editor's lovely assistant; the fact that I love America's Next Top Model (don't judge); the revelation of my crush on Chris Baty of NaNoWriMo fame; my unabated lust for Anthony Bourdain.

I'm not sure if any of this needs to be made public. But I do it anyway, because a compulsive confessor loves nothing more than an even higher box from which to yell her confessions. It also explains why I've been having so much fun writing this collection of essays that will be coming out from Chronicle next year. All I'm doing is confessing. Everyone understands and empathizes with shame -- I would argue that emotionally, love and hate are the only two emotions as important as shame in making people act the way they do. So it's interesting to be taking my life apart, peering into its nooks, blowing dust off things that made me blush long before I learned how to truly confess.

Side note: Admission of culpability is difficult for some, yes (not for me), but overall it's easier than admitting one was wrong. They're two separate things. I can admit I've screwed up and made a mistake. I won't keep it a secret. I'll be the first to point out my fault -- I want to confess it before you find it out. But I'm not as good at admitting I was wrong. That's what I'm working on now, and I can tell you, it's slow going. And hey, that's admitting a secret I'm not comfortable with right there.

It feels good. And it just goes to show.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Secret Poison

by Sophie


It would be hard for me to convey just how much I hate secrets. The greatest hurts of my life have been due to things unsaid, terrible truths that lay thick on the ground all around while those who tried to ignore them were crippled by their own shame. Secrets are especially damaging to children, whose struggle to understand the world in the face of partial truths and lies is made near-impossible, and whose attempts to shift their understanding to fit the flawed picture can result in invisible emotional deformities that can cripple them for their entire lives.

Naturally, this sort of sad landscape is rich with story potential, and I suppose it's no surprise that I'm most comfortable there when I'm writing. And I think the inexhaustible thirst of the reading public for revelatory stories, addiction memoirs and abuse stories and even dark thrillers with unspeakable crimes at the heart - I think this reflects a collective longing to understand and best the homely horrors of everyday life as practiced in our society. And I'd go a step further and say that the reader of this type of fiction is not just looking for the catharsis of seeing a victim rise above her torment - but also recognizing a core darkness that is present in the villain or antagonist of the story, the abuser or the addict or the killer.

It's a sad but basic truth that victims and perpetrators, especially when the former is a child, have muddy relationships. The villain steals innocence, sometimes intentionally, sometimes despite himself. The child is stamped forever with the shape of his particular darkness. Extrication never returns the victim to the same state she was in before, and that is why pat endings to thrillers are never very satisfying - we know, deep in our hearts, that the child rescued from the killer's clutches, who is seen reunited with his mother in the last frame of the book with the handsome sheriff looking on - we know that child is a changeling, that this is only the first page of a new book that cannot end well, one colored with a whole catalog of shame and terror and self-recrimination and doubt.

(As just one of thousands of examples, I'm currently reading DRINKING: A LOVE STORY by Carolyn Knapp, a chronicle of her years of alcoholism. One of the most compelling things I took away from the book is Knapp's painstaking insistence that there was nothing dramatically wrong with her childhood, just a general lack of closeness and a vague sense of secrecy, of things witheld. At times we learn of small hidden dramas later discovered by the now-alcoholic adult Carolyn, but one senses that it was the more diffuse and general sense of things unsaid that created the emptiness Carolyn filled with drink. That is, of course, just my reading.)

So: secrets -> inner life minefield -> great potential for fiction.

My own kids have probably suffered an overabundance of truth as a result of my determination to avoid the deception snares. We laugh about it now, but I am sure that there were many times when an evasion or even a gentle fabrication might have sufficed. I've outed people and habits and history that could probably have been left to rest with no great consequence. If I could start parenting over again I'm sure I'd make different choices. But I was well-intentioned, and I think I got the basic point across - truth is best.

That said, I confess now to being an incurable secret-keeper. I'd say we all are, but speaking just for myself, I fail every day in my professed hope to be more open. I'm secretive for convenience' sake, to save feelings, to get what I want. I even, though I try *really* hard not to, keep secrets from myself, the most damaging ones of all. But I'm getting pretty good at recognizing it. By the time I'm dead I intend to be an open book.

Of course there are lovely secrets, the sort that are accompanied by blushing and quickened pulses and mysteriously-signed notes...and I'll leave those for my sunnier Pens to plumb.