Never erase

We have always been told to learn from our mistakes. It’s a simple enough concept: don’t repeat things that don’t work or things that are bad for you. Wear shoes when you walk on gravel. Don’t stick your tongue to the pole in the schoolyard in winter. Simple.

When it comes to writing, the concept is a little more confusing. Picture the stereotypical frustrated writer, sitting alone in a room, staring at a blank page. Then inspiration strikes! Frantic writing… then, a page is torn, crumpled, tossed across the room in disgust. Zoom in on the pencil. This time, the author is on to something… a sentence, and then, SCRATCH SCRATCH SCRATCH, SCRIBBLE SCRIBBLE SCRIBBLE… blacked out in disgust, as illegible as a classified document. Maybe another ball of paper, thrown away. Zoom out. Scribbles. Balls of paper. Frustration. Fade to black.

For writers it is almost second nature to destroy what we don’t like about what we just put to paper. Why? Maybe we worry that someone will read these unacceptable lines (and care). Maybe we think that the bad stuff will corrupt everything around it, like an algae bloom in the crystal clear pool of our genius. Nonsense.

Never erase
Never throw away
Reread your drafts
Reread your journals

If you’ve thrown away a draft, or erased parts of it in one way or another, you can never learn from it. And don’t pretend to yourself that you’ll remember why it was ‘terrible;’ most times you can’t remember, a few hours later, that good stuff that comes to you as you fall asleep. If it’s gone, it’ll be repeated.

There is also another great reason to make your mistakes visible. When you reread your draft, your notes, your journal, you’ll see the worlds words (wow, an example right here! I meant ‘words’ but typed ‘worlds’ so I’m going to leave it) under the strikethrough. Those were your original thoughts, your original gut instincts. Once you’ve removed yourself from the critical, “this sucks,” heat-of-the-moment hatred of your words, maybe you’ll see there was something salvageable.

Maybe it’s even better than just salvaging a little bit of writing. Maybe you’ll see an error, juxtaposed beside another word, another concept, and it will spark something totally new and fresh and different and inspiring. I remember writing feverishly, writing and crossing out (because I actually take my own advice and never erase), and coming up dry. A page of, well, nothing. But, under one pencil line, I read the word ‘ghost’ which had been either a written-typo (whatever those are called) or a weird mental connection I’d lost as soon as I’d written it. Whatever the case, in the nonsensical context, the ‘ghost’ idea became a fun little poem, using bits and pieces of the unrelated stuff that happened around the error. The original had NOTHING to do with what I eventually wrote. And the word ‘ghost’ didn’t even appear in the final piece.

If I had thrown out the page, or blacked out the ghost, I would never have found those interesting, accidental interplays that made the mistake worthwhile.

Keep the paper smooth, in your journal, notepad, binder, and cherish your strikethroughs, for there may be nuggets of inspiration in those words you originally thought garbage.