So it's December 1st. Until yesterday I thought that Advent always started on December 1st. Wasn’t that what all the calendars with the hidden candy said? Well, it’s been a couple decades since I actually looked at one. For some reason it occurred to me to check, and I found that, no, in fact, as the more devout of you may already know, Advent (being in theory a Christian observance) begins each year on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. This meant we had an extra date on our yearly Essay Daily Advent calendar that, like a stocking, a sausage, a pasty, an awkward conversational pause, or an over-dry doughnut, needed filling. It was my error, so I took it as my problem.
Errors hold a lot of weight in my essays. This is in part because I dearly value error in composition: errors show up all the time in the interim between the brain and the keyboard. I try not to immediately erase them, instead maybe riffing on them a little and leaving them for the next draft to suss out. Some errors are the subconscious making its presence felt in the composition process, and I don’t trust myself enough in the moment to separate the interesting misstep from the boring kind. That’s for the critical mind—the revising one, the smart one—to decide.
The weight I give to error is also in part because the unreliability of memory is fascinating. How can it not be? Memory is all we have to prove to ourselves that we are ourselves.
A few weeks back, I went to a talk by Elizabeth Loftus, a well-known researcher and memory theorist. She is best known for her work debunking the veracity of eyewitness testimony in court cases. At the very end of her talk, in the Q&A, she said that if not for ethical or funding limitations in her research, she was sure—her research so far had definitively shown—that she could convince a sizable portion of the population that anything had happened to them, no matter how traumatic or outlandish. That is: most of us cannot trust our memories.
Well, actually, we know that, don’t we? Our memories serve themselves, or serve the narratives that they currently support. When our sense of our selves changes, our memories reconfigure and tell us new stories, with different actors and accents.
But to hear it said so bluntly gave me a little shock. I thought to myself: if we can’t trust our memories, how can we believe that we are who we think we are? Well, often we’re reminded that we’re not who we think we are: who always reacts to situations exactly as they thought they would? Without the capacity of being able to surprise ourselves (to be able to discover some sudden hollow in the self), what would be the point of being alive?
Still, if we aren’t our memories, what are we?
I’m reminded here of a Mark Doty Essay, “Bride in Beige,” about a moment in copyediting his memoir Firebird in which he asks a question of his memory: “Why, in the Tennessee of 1960, would a woman choose not to wear a white dress?” The woman in question is his living sister. The copyeditor replied in the margin: “Why don’t you just ask her?” The rest of the essay (and you can read it here) is spent in parsing how and why “I hadn’t wanted to know. I didn’t realize until I was asked this question how deeply my book was allegiant to memory, not to history” (these italics are his). This essay appeared in Truth in Nonfiction, a great collection edited by David Lazar, published by the University of Iowa Press in 2008. It’s worthwhile and very entertaining, especially since the question it addresses (from at least twenty different angles) has not faded into obscurity. As you can imagine, it remains central to many readers’ conceptions of what literary nonfiction (or creative nonfiction, to use the more popular, if inferior, term) is capable of.
This little essay is offered in response to it.
An error is an opportunity. For the journalist, an error is a thing to be fact-checked and corrected, but for the essayist, an error is an opportunity: for exploration, for pushing harder, for wonder, for a little thundering of self-doubt and self-plumbing. An error creates a little plot: whoa! I thought this, and then I found out that, and here is what it means. If the essay is a record of thought, a thought that turns out to be factually incorrect is no less interesting a lead (if pursued fruitfully in revision) than a thought that was right on from the first. In fact, the latter thought, the right-on one, while maybe it’s “correct,” it lacks drama, perhaps a greater sin. Just like the Alabama-Notre Dame NCAA football national championship a few years back: The Crimson Tide steamrolled Notre Dame from the first to the very last. It was a punitive affair. Admittedly very satisfying for the Alabama fan or for anyone who dislikes Notre Dame (I happen to fit both descriptions), it didn’t make for a very enjoyable game for anyone else to watch. It’s hard to get it up for the dramaless; for the true believers, never tested, never faltering; for the behemoth college football program rolling over everything in its path. So we should be happy for the opportunity to investigate and make something of our errors. The faultless are shitty essayists.
A great deal of the power of an essay (or a poem or a story) comes from discovery, where the essay figures out something that didn’t seem to be present in the conditions of the essay’s beginning. I read a lot of essays in my capacity as editor of DIAGRAM that are shapely and provocative, weighty and well-made, but reading them there’s no sense that the essayist discovered anything in the essay that wasn’t potentially obvious or inherent in the information presented to us at the essay’s beginning. Of course we ended up here. One of the rejection notes I write most often asks for this: okay, this is great. Now you have to discover the something else to bring into the essay’s orbit that will allow for it to finally find its form, to level up and figure something you don’t know yet out and get into transcendent territory.
If we’re not after transcendence, what are we after?
This potential transcendent bit will likely appear as an error either in the essay’s drafting or your thinking about it (or about what belongs in it, what might be relevant) as you keep thinking and working it. If you just delete it from the draft without giving it room to grow you might never know what could have been.
Almost any piece of interesting art comes out of error. Story doesn’t start with the exact same rendition of your routine as yesterday. It starts with interruption, when the oil pipeline breaks, when a glance or chance encounter disrupts the solid ground of the marriage. Give us trouble, story says, and it is right. A poem is a glitch in our experiencing of the world, not the everyday experience itself.
An essay—which is to say an interesting essay—which is to say an interesting consciousness—is an error in consciousness. You’re suddenly attentive to something that nobody else would pay attention to, what Lia Purpura might call “an undersung moment” (one of my very favorite sentences is Purpura’s, from “On Coming Back as a Buzzard”: Plump entrails crusting with sage and dirt tighten in sun: piercing that is an undersung moment, filled with a tender resistance, a sweetness, slick curves and tanlges to dip into, to tear, stretch, snap, and swallow.)
To say undersung is perhaps also to say error.
Obviously you can’t just bring everything into every essay. An essay is not the world. It’s the world, vastly edited, plumbed, and juxtaposed so as the remaining arrangement yields meaning. What remains must be important. It must be fruitful. But editing it all out too early without thought won’t get you anywhere.
Do you want to be an error-explorer or an error-corrector? A deviant or a norm?
I’m not religious; I just like ritual. And I like calendars because of their regularity, how a system can organize our time. And I like surprises behind little doors and dailyness. I love constraint (which is to say I love form). By adding a constraint you entertain the conscious brain (otherwise it can be insatiable) and make more room for the rest of the brain to throw its weight around.
It takes work to admit error. Our whole lives we’re trained to avoid, ignore, or fix our errors. In this way our lives are heuristics, a way of operating. These heuristics work pretty well for us. Until they don’t. Sometimes we’re mistaken about something simple: a song lyric, a birthday. Other times it’s something bigger. That may not always be good for our lives, but it's great for our essays. By erring we expand ourselves. In erring we essay.