Mistakes: Recognition, Response, and Writing

24 Jul

I really screwed up on 7/10/12 ~~ missed my post. I’d become totally wrapped up in something with my kids and zoned out for several days, especially in writing. Thus, today’s post was going to be about SELF. Self-flagellation. Self-sabotage. Self – – – – absorption, protection, discipline, control, care . . . y’know . . . ‘self’.


 I finally kicked my a** back into writing and finessed a couple of culminating plot points nagging said a**.  And, of course, I vowed to write seventy million blogs as backup so I don’t let my colleagues down again. My stories and their conflicts rely heavily upon a central theme – atonement – and how ‘atonement’ – for good or ill – doesn’t really provide the fix humans seek to assuage guilt. I’m particularly interested in how bias and bigotry create situations where generally well-meaning people end up doing horrendous things and are absolutely clueless about the damage done.

At this point, you’ve got to be asking yourself:  How did she get from self-flagellation to atonement to bigotry and why would this be remotely useful to writing?  Ahhh, my friends, there’s always a way to spin a good tautology.

 Mistake –> Awareness –> Remorse –> Analysis –> Response

 Mistake & Awareness: When we make a mistake and realize we made a mistake, then we feel badly and consider the best way to make amends or necessary changes to avoid the same error.

Remorse, Analysis & Response: The remorse point is critical. For sociopaths, the remorse stage will be entirely driven by the negative effects of the mistake upon the sociopath. If you’re a regular everyday flawed person (and I’ll count myself here), then the remorse stage includes concern for harm befalling ‘other’ (people, animals, places, things, cultures, ideas, etc). Assessing the factors prompting the error includes determining what variables are in your control and how likely you are to face the same circumstances. If the variables are within your control and you’re likely to face a similar scenario, then you can develop contingencies to avoid the same screwup. If not, you can consider how to gain more control over the variables or limit the fallout.

I clued into my mistaken when I logged onto Gem State Writers to read Meredith’s blog and catch up on Gail’s post. I hadn’t arranged for internet access while traveling so I was behind that week. Of course, the problem was compounded by my brain glitch on the fact that my Tuesday (duh!) ALWAYS falls between Gail’s Monday and Meredith’s Wednesday. I feel huge remorse (ergo self-flagellation, or in this case, a public confession). I have a good sense of where my usual schedule skewed and have a few stopgaps in place to avoid another gaffe, though the sequence of events is unlikely to occur again.

 But what if a person doesn’t realize his or her mistake?

What if s/he doesn’t have a clue about a significant error?

What if the unrealized mistake leads us down a dangerous path?

Or has harmful implications for others?

 Allow me to introduce an extraordinarily compelling line of research. I’ve used the Implicit Project in both my ethics classes and those dealing with personnel management to prompt my students in ‘aha’ moments. The Implicit Project is associated with Harvard University and reflects collaborative efforts with other Universities across the United States.

The site takes you to a series of quick response tests used to determine our subconscious associations and preferences for everything from physical appearance to professional and social roles. As I further immerse in writing fiction, I’m thinking about this tool as a way to demonstrate character arc, to challenge stereotypical characters or plots, and to reflect upon ways I might unconsciously limit the scope of my stories.

Each day, human beings busily deal with so many ‘things’ (sights, sounds, demands, threats, or opportunities) that our brains operate on autopilot (a contributing factor to my blog snafu). If you’ve ever driven to work when you should’ve been headed to the grocery story, then you know what I mean. Often, this is a survival mechanism. However, it can also be a damaging response to the world around us, especially when we operate on autopilot in terms of whatever subconscious stereotypes or cues we use to make split second judgments about others.

If we aren’t even aware of the mistakes we make in judgments, then we can’t possibly ‘atone’ via the Remorse/Analysis/Response cycle. I suppose the adage, ‘don’t fix what ain’t broken’, should be adapted to ‘you can’t fix something unless you know it’s broken’.

What are your thoughts about learning from mistakes? Atoning for errors? How do you use the mistake/response cycle in your writing? And how might implicit bias create conflict for our characters or drive tension in our plots?

Note: I’ll be on another small road trip with my kids when this post first comes out, but will be able to log on and comment by the late afternoon.


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15 responses to “Mistakes: Recognition, Response, and Writing

  1. johannaharness

    July 24, 2012 at 5:14 AM

    You are so organized, Liz! Is it weird that I find it comforting that you make mistakes? M-A-R-A-R. Got it.

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 24, 2012 at 4:08 PM

      It’s so funny to me that we always see our friends more clearly than they see themselves. It is comforting to know we’re as imperfect as the people we like to hang out with 😉

  2. John Ross Barnes

    July 24, 2012 at 8:24 AM

    All good stuff, Liz. I know Mistake, Recognition, Response is something I have dwelt on much in my own life but only hinted at in my writing thus far. When one is habitually lost in the Fog some explorations can get too painful, too close to the bone, and so they get shoved away. Thanks for reminding me this is something that I can perhaps deal with in my writing, if I boil it down a different way.

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 24, 2012 at 4:09 PM

      Yeah, the close to the bone stuff – argh. I’ve noticed that the villain in my story has some of the physical mannerisms that I catch myself doing – folding things neatly when stressed. I have no idea what to do with that!! LOL

      My position is writing helps us deal with good and bad and hopefully we can put something to paper to resonate with another. Thanks for commenting – I always appreciate your insights.

  3. stephanieberget

    July 24, 2012 at 10:05 AM

    Great post, Liz. Mistake, Remorse and Response, that combination is so important in taking care of the oops in life.

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 24, 2012 at 4:11 PM

      Yep, those darn oops – I just returned from a little trip with my kids. We took a trail ride (well-led, of course, it’s been years since I rode) and I thought of you ~~ hmmm, my horse is so old and tired that I feel safe, but Miss Stephanie would smile really big at how long it took me to get ‘back in the saddle’ as it were.

  4. Janis

    July 24, 2012 at 10:09 AM

    You know I’m a sucker for online tests/surveys. I took it and it was interesting that not only opinions were tested but dexterity! Thanks for the intriguing blog. Oh, I tend to lend weight to how my mistake is on the scale of doing brain surgery and not doing brain surgery in the importance of how badly I feel. I own up to the mistake and sincerely apologize, but if it becomes mammoth in another’s eye, it becomes their issue. I just re-read that and it sounds harsh. I don’t mean it to be.

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 24, 2012 at 4:14 PM

      Very good advice, Janis!! You’re right . . . when people get too wired on the small things, then it is their issue. I received a text earlier today that I found kind of upsetting – just a small snarky jab kind of a text. It bugged me a bit all day and then I sat, read your comment and smiled . . . it’s nice to lob those issues right back at the perpetrator!

  5. Peggy Staggs

    July 24, 2012 at 2:48 PM

    Mistakes happen and we tend to see ours in a much brighter light than others do. Which is a great tool to use in mystery. A character may be focusing on the mistake and miss something important.

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 24, 2012 at 4:15 PM

      Too true and you’re right – it’s a beautifully human response to use in a mystery. I think it would also draw your reader in – once a character in a book has my sympathy then I usually can’t put the book down.

  6. Meredith Conner

    July 24, 2012 at 8:46 PM

    I love mistakes! That is I love to have my characters make them – not a big fan when it happens to myself, but we all make them and I think that is why it is so relatable when we have our characters mess things up. And I sincerely hope you’ve moved past the self-flagellation state!!!!

    • Liz Fredericks

      July 25, 2012 at 7:00 AM

      I don’t know . . . given how popular self-flagellation appears to be on the best-seller list . . . nah. Can’t go there! 😉

  7. maryvine

    July 25, 2012 at 1:05 PM

    I’m glad you’re not a sociopath and that your error gave you something to write about 🙂 Thanks for the lesson.

  8. Lynn Mapp

    July 25, 2012 at 2:30 PM

    When I mess up…? How would such a thing happen? LOL. I admit my mistake and hope I’m forgiven. What if you have a character who can’t admit imperfection? That becomes their arc. It’s gonna hurt when they are forced to face that.

  9. marsharwest

    July 26, 2012 at 7:19 AM

    Great post, Liz. There’s a difference between beating ourselves over our head for making a mistake and being able to learn from and move on. Those of us who fall into the perfectionist area, really struggle with the moving on. I can spend all day running over a conversation searching for where I went wrong and messed up a relationship. Love your comment, Lynn. Clearly, I need to write a character with that flaw so he/she can grow into the learning he/she is not perfect. And you know, I love y’alls blog, but missing a day here and there is okay. Gives me more time to work on WIP. It’s all about choices, but when you guys pop up, I’m compelled to look–even if I”m a little late. 🙂


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