Why Are We So Certain About Our Mistakes?
One of the most painful parts of the writing profession is reviewing your own published work. It’s a bit like the uncomfortable experience of listening to your own voice being played back to you, except instead of finding that you don’t like the sound of your own voice, you often find you don’t like what that voice is saying, nor, as a result, the person in possession of it.
As Frederick Buechner wrote, we cringe at what we wrote long ago, wondering how on earth we could have been so “callow and wrongheaded, so alternately glib and pontifical.” Seneca, a wonderful writer and observer of the human condition, made it more universal: “When I think of all the things I have said, I envy the mute.”
So what do most of us do? Well, we try our hardest not to think of all the things we’ve said. We preserve our ego by keeping our mind as far as possible from the idea that we’ve ever been glib or callow or guilty of pontificating. And of course, as a result, we go on being precisely those things longer than necessary.
Those of us blessed or cursed not to have been born perfect will find it impossible to review anything we’ve published without being overcome by an urge to cringe — and the longer ago the words were written or said, the stronger the feeling. It’s undeniable. The trying way too hard. The undeserved superiority.
I’ve recently had the unpleasant privilege of reviewing and updating my first book. I say privilege because it’s gratifying to find that something you wrote when you were 25 years old still has an audience and a publisher interested in keeping the material current. I say unpleasant because that’s the nicest way to describe what it’s like to look seriously at anything you wrote at that age, and then to read it again over the course of many hours in a recording studio for the audiobook.
When reviewing these pages — pages I’d hurriedly written and edited in my excitement to publish my first book — I wonder who the hell I thought I was. I’d studied and sat with the topic for how long? And here I was, printing words that could never be unprinted. I’m embarrassed by the certainty of it. As if it had never occurred to me to hedge my bets or entertain the possibility…