Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.
Is it an apology?
Is it a zippy, casual way of admitting to a mistake but without sounding overly formal?
Is it one more curious example of an everyday expression with a hotly debated etymological past? (A ride down the origin-of-phrases rabbit hole allowed me the chance to consider the following inquiry. Who deserves the most credit for coining the phrase my bad: Louie Armstrong, Shakespeare, Manute Bol or Amy Heckerling, the writer-director of the 1995 popular movie, Clueless?)
Whether you answered yes, no or I don’t know to one or more of the questions above may or may not matter to where we go next: the blank (and not-so-blank) pages.
The July 24, 2022 Sunday Review section of the New York Times features a collection of Op-Ed pieces written by some of their most notable columnists. Each piece is framed by a title that starts with the words, “I Was Wrong About…” The topics, or how each title ends, range from Mitt Romney to Facebook to inflation (and several more.) For example, a piece by Gail Collins is titled, “I Was Wrong About Mitt Romney (and His Dog.)
From the introductory blurb by the NYT Editors:
In our age of hyperpartisanship and polarization, when social media echo chambers incentivize digging in and doubling down, it’s not easy to admit you got something wrong. But here at Times Opinion, we still hold on to the idea that good-faith intellectual debate is possible, that we should all be able to rethink our positions on issues, from the most serious to the most trivial.
I read all the selections and did, yet again, toss around some new and old ideas about capitalism, Trump voters and why protest matters. The pieces made me think. A good thing, right?
But more than that, even before reading the essays, I was refreshed by the gesture. The act of devoting this much space to declaring, “My bad!” to a worldwide readership of millions. Writers taking to the page to say what they got wrong.
Kind of brave. Kind of uncommon. Kind of cool.
Then I got local. Local as in my desk, my laptop, my very own pages. I reminded myself that there is power in going back, back to some of the old stuff and posing questions: How do I think about this now? How do I feel about it? What’s changed? Why?
I read some ancient essays, flash pieces and stories. And, yes, even a couple of old journals. The first thing I will say about that experience is that I needed a long walk and a long hot bath at the end of the day. The second thing is this: it made me realize where I was wrong and what I can do about it. A few times it was a whole new opinion and in other cases it was a whole different style of writing. Either way, it meant paying homage to a handful of realities that accompany my work as a writer. Process. Revision. Vulnerability. Mistake-making.
How I respond to blank pages depends on a lot of things. The time of day. How close I am to deadline. The density of the crust on my pizza. My best days with those kinds of pages mean things are in alignment. Things like sentences, paragraphs and even planets. Things like ideas, angles, approaches and styles that come together to help me build a story. There are a lot of moving parts and on those days the parts are strong and true. It all aligns. Maybe the opposite of my bad could be whispered (or roared) even if only to myself. “My good!” is not such a crazy thing to say on the better days.
But, as we know, the writing life is not composed of only one kind of day. I know it and you know it. Here’s an idea: When we revisit our out of alignment pages and discover a change of head or heart, maybe we can try on another reality. Maybe we can say sorry or I made a mistake. Or even, my bad.
Then maybe we can take out another page and do something uncommon, brave and kind of cool.