Magic in the Mess

Back-to-school ads brought a childhood memory to mind. In eighth grade, I was disappointed to get a certain English teacher. He had a reputation for being boring and dismissive and not too bright (although I’m sure 8th graders had harsher terms for him). And he proved to be all of those things. But halfway through the year, he gave us an assignment that excited me. He told us to write down the lyrics to a song that meant something to us and then break down the song in an essay and explain why we loved it.

I chose “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers. (I know, odd choice, right? But I was an odd kid). I put a lot of thought into every line of the song, analyzing it in writing to the best of my ability. I think I talked about how sometimes the answers come from the most unexpected places, and how you had to know when to stand your ground and when to quit, and how the Gambler spoke these amazing words of wisdom as his last act on earth. He passed on his wisdom, then he passed away. I was terribly clever and mature and worldly, I thought. And I turned it in fully expecting an A and a comment from my teacher about how insightful I was, and how he’d never hear that song again without being touched by my analysis.

When I got the paper back, there was a big red B at the top. I’d gotten an automatic grade decrease, he said, because I had neglected to put the title of the song in the upper left-hand corner of the page as instructed. I was furious. Such an arbitrary rule had cost me my A. Such a meaningless thing to grade me down for in the face of such a thoughtful essay. Life and all its silly little rules were stupid. Why couldn’t people ever see the bigger picture?

As an adult, I still wonder that sometimes. You put out a piece of writing that you hope will inspire and impress everyone who reads it, then you get an e-mail that says simply, “There’s a typo in your second paragraph.”  Or you mount this amazing photograph that took you three years to finally capture, and someone comments on the nick in the frame. You work hard at your art, you put your heart and soul into it, you feed it with your genius, and all people see is what’s missing. It’s frustrating. School was often frustrating because the administrators so often seemed to care more about whether you raised your hand before you shouted out your brilliant observation than they did about the observation. And teachers so often asked for our opinions just so they could tell us we were wrong.

Of course, rules are important. And structure is important. And guidelines are important. But creating is often messy and it doesn’t follow the rules and it doesn’t push the chair back in place when it’s done.

So now that I’m a supposedly much wiser adult, what do I do? Sometimes I allow myself to create with abandon. The rules, the expectations, the judgments, go out the window. When I’m done, I happily roll around in the mess I made. Then I take a deep breath and go back. I make sure I’ve crossed my Ts and dotted my Is and I reread the rules for submissions. I make sure everything is in order. I confess it’s not always possible to just feel free. After 26 years in this business, the rules are ingrained. But it sure feels good to once and a while stray from the path and just go exploring.

And always when I put something out in the world, I trust. I trust that though I’ve wrapped my package up in a neat and tidy bow, when readers open it, the magic in the mess will come spilling out.

P.S. Don’t stop telling me when you see a typo. I do appreciate the chance to fix them. ?

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