Writers, you know the feeling: you’ve just scooped up your contributor’s copy of a journal or magazine, anthology, or (yikes) newly-minted book. You eagerly flip to the page where your work appears, and begin reading. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for—the piece of writing you labored over so intensely now in print, after numerous drafts back and forth among your readers, fine-tuning with agents and editors. You scrutinized and approved the galleys; this is your well-deserved moment in the sun. Time to take yourself out to lunch, enjoy a glass of wine, and spread the word via your website, Twitter, and Facebook.
Except for what snags your glance on page three, jolting you out of the sentence. A glaring typographical error. You’re sure you had caught this in the galleys, listed among the handful of corrections. But there it is, a blight in the middle of your award-winning story, and a nonsensical error at that—“…for her eyes,s” reads the phrase. You consider contacting the editors, letting them know if they haven’t caught the mistake already. But don’t.
Because what, really, can be done? In your case, the publication is a print literary journal. There will be no second edition of the issue, so the error will remain. The story will only have the opportunity to stand corrected should you decide to include it in a future collection of yours. Print publication abounds with virtues and pitfalls, and sometimes those are one and the same—for the mistake will remain on paper for all who lay their hands on a copy, whereas if the journal were electronic, a quick email to the editor would fix the mistake before anyone may notice.
We don’t like to think so, but art is full of mistakes. In the case outlined above, the reader would hopefully recognize the typo as a mere slip of the eye as a fatigued editor made corrections; they shall read on. In writing and publishing, errors on the page are but one form of what can go wrong when we bring our work to an audience. At a recent reading in Orlando, fiction writer Phil Deaver shared just such an aside, of a time he was a guest reader at a Swiss school. He was in the middle of a several page poem, facing a packed auditorium, when he turned the page only to find the last one missing. In an uncanny turn of events, the fire alarm went off—a reading literally saved by the bell.
What to do about the page left in the Kinko’s tray, the mental blank-out which occurs in the blinding spotlight? For no matter how copiously we proofread and drill beforehand, mistakes happen. Writers have much to learn here from the performing arts, I think, before we step down from the podium or angrily toss the flawed contributor’s copy onto the couch, and deny ourselves the celebratory drink (because after all, we’re perfectionists and martyrs when it comes to our art, and nothing causes our tempers to flare more than the final product being anything less than perfect).
Last month, I performed a number with two dance classmates at our studio’s hafla—the crowd was intimate, and the stage I knew well, having performed my solo there in December. The song and choreography I had memorized, too, since the number was from our fall show. We’d held several practice sessions; I felt 100% confident about performing the piece.
But, our routine got off to a rocky start. We had taken our places on stage when the CD I’d burned refused to read in the player. The other two dancers hadn’t brought the music, and we scurried around backstage to find someone who did. Finally, the situation was resolved, and we reclaimed our spots before the audience.
I’m not sure if my subconscious was rattled by the music fiasco or whether something else triggered what happened next, but mid-way through the dance I suffered a blank-out. This was no momentarily lapse for a count or two, either, but a full amnesia attack of perhaps an entire 8-count—I went from being completely focused to not having the faintest idea of the steps. Thankfully, I acted on my instinct to keep moving, making up movements so that I wasn’t standing there doing nothing. At last the music snapped me back and I resumed the routine perfectly, embarrassed and at a loss as to what had happened but with a determination to recover as fully as possible.
But how does one recover from such a blunder? I summoned the most enthusiasm I could muster for the rest of the performance—hoping to forget the lapse as much as possible, and thus, cause the audience to forget. This is easier when dancing solo, for without the matching movements of fellow dancers in a group number, the soloist can improv, faking the lapse until she recovers and moves on, and the audience, even a savvy one filled with other dancers, likely won’t have a clue. When mistakes happen at an advanced level, seasoned artists either make the mistake appear as intentional as possible, or don’t acknowledge it at all.
In other words, they say to the audience—what happened there? That wasn’t such a big deal. Take a look at this! The moment is over, the mistake falls into the past, and everyone moves on.
This is where print can trump performance, for grace lies in the fact that eventually, print can be corrected. Whereas for the art form that depends solely on performance, the final product is tied to time and space; there is no going back and fixing onstage blunders. But there is moving on to the next performance, as quickly as possible. My boyfriend, a well-known spoken word poet and actor, offered these wise words of advice: “Remember that there are good performance days and bad ones. The artists who perform five nights a week know this, and just move on to the next.”
Writers, I suspect, are less apt to move on easily from a bad reading or poorly edited publication because many of us don’t give readings or see our words in nationally-recognized magazines very frequently—a few times a year, if we’re lucky. But if we take a close look at the authors who present to audiences a lot, who publish often and in a variety of places, we’d likely notice that they’ve mastered how to deal with mistakes. Everyone makes them, but the trick is how quickly and confidently one recovers from them. Not to beat oneself up.
Now go have that celebratory drink, and focus on the next performance.