Jamie Langston Turner


Mistakes and All

May 10, 2018

I’ve had recurring dreams all my adult life about being unprepared for a performance in some public arena. I’ve been told this is typical of perfectionists, though I don’t like to think I might be one of those tightly wound people.

In some dreams, I’ve been shoved out on stage to play a leading role in a crowded theater, but I don’t know my lines. In others I’m a student in a classroom, and as the teacher is passing out a major exam, I realize that I’ve missed all of the lectures and haven’t read any of the assignments. Other times I’m the teacher, facing a class of college intellectuals who are expecting me to deliver a lecture on, say, “Characterization and Modeling of La{1-x}Sr{x}CoO {3-delta} Solid Oxide Fuel Cell Cathodes Using Nonlinear Electrochemical Impedance Techniques.” (Apologies to Timothy J. McDonald, who wrote a dissertation with this title for his PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Washington in 2014.) Other times I’m an artist and my new painting is being unveiled. An enormous gasp goes up from the crowd, followed by stunned silence at the sight of the “masterpiece”: a single black line drawn across a sheet of paper torn from a yellow legal pad. And then there are the musical performances. A spotlight is trained on me, the orchestra is playing, and it’s time for me to sing my aria—the beautiful Caro Nome from Verdi’s Rigoletto. I open my mouth and. . . bray like a donkey.

My performance in each dream is a complete failure and is noted by many people who respond in various ways—laughter, jeers, stares, mass exodus. These dreams of mine are blessedly short but, oh, so humiliating. I’m always filled with great relief when I wake up and realize they didn’t really happen.

But then there are other performances of mine that really have happened and are still out there floating around. I’m thinking of all the errors I’ve found in the books I’ve written—printed in indelible ink, bound and published for all to see. Errors I’ve found after the fact, of course. I’ve come to half-dread opening the first copy of one of my published books when it comes in the mail. I know by now that it won’t take long to spot a mistake and then I’ll feel an immediate letdown that the manuscript, over which I labored for at least two years and read over and over and over and which multiple editors proofed with their keen, practiced eyes—yes, that manuscript, which I had thought was surely perfect by now, is flawed.

Though I spotted most of the post-publication mistakes myself, occasionally a reader will point out one I had overlooked. For example, not long ago a reader named Polly drew my attention to the following passage from page 384 of A Garden to Keep. Eldeen has just given Elizabeth a set of embroidered pillowcases depicting little lambs on a hillside, and Eldeen begins rhapsodizing over the many ways God uses lambs and sheep in the Bible.

“He goes after little lost lambs like us and snuggles ‘em in his bosom and brings ‘em home to the fold!” She gave a little shudder of pleasure and added, “It just makes me tingle all over to think of it!”

Without meaning to, I
[Elizabeth] laughed out loud. I was sure she meant to say “tingle.” I recovered quickly by laughing again and saying, “Oh yes, lambs are wonderful. . . .”

Polly, the kind reader, said in her email: “You probably see what my question is—was this something that was incorrectly edited? Is Eldeen supposed to have said something other than tingle?

Well, I wanted to bang my head against the wall. I scrambled to look it up, and sure enough—that’s exactly what it said. I wrote Polly back and sadly informed her that, yes, Eldeen was supposed to have said “tinkle.” Since she says “tingle” instead, there’s absolutely no reason for Elizabeth to laugh out loud and then think, I was sure she meant to say “tingle,” which was exactly what she did say.

This is only one of many, many errors in my books. I remember opening my first copy of No Dark Valley to a random page, only to have my eyes land squarely on the word “hosptial.” I groaned out loud. I opened Sometimes a Light Surprises and saw that the very first sentence of the very first chapter was missing the period at the end. In Some Wildflower in My Heart, I wrote that Margaret reflected on the words to a tone poem, which I learned post-publication was a display of my ignorance. A tone poem is an orchestral composition, not a choral piece. It has no words.

Some of the errors were eventually corrected. I would compile a list of “errata,” submit it to my editor, and the patient publisher would usually approve the extra time and trouble it would take to fix them before the next printing. But sometimes there was no “next printing.” So the mistakes will stand until the last copy on earth turns to dust.

Well, what’s the theme here? Nobody’s perfect? I think we all know that by now. Made in God’s image, we all have an inner drive to create something, but those somethings will always fall short in some way.

Here’s a confession. Over the past several years, my thoughts have sometimes gone like this: Maybe my writing days are over. I don’t see how I can focus on weaving a make-believe story when real life is pressing in on every side. Besides, every book I’ve written is full of mistakes. And I'm not thinking only of the mechanical slips resulting from careless proofreading but also the big, factual ones (I mixed up Shostakovich and Stravinksy in one book), not to mention errors of judgment—things I should have added, or omitted.

I started writing a new book five or six years ago, before To See the Moon Again was published. Since then I have set it aside for long stretches, then picked it back up at random times to write a few paragraphs or maybe a whole page, then put it down again with a sinking feeling. This used to be so easy and so fast and so enjoyable!

Well, I’ve picked it up again and have made it to chapter 18. That may be halfway, maybe not. It still needs more shaping and refining than I may have in me. So the thoughts come again. Okay, I’ve written eight novels. I could just stop. There’s no rule that says I have to finish this one. It’s such a long way from being anywhere close to good. And for sure it will never be perfect.

Recently I came across the “Ten Paradoxical Commandments” by Dr. Kent Keith. They have been shared all over the world, printed and reprinted on posters, bookmarks, mugs, cards, plaques, magnets, even tee-shirts and ball caps. Written in 1968, they are celebrating their fiftieth anniversary this year. They are convicting, inspirational, pithy sayings—things like

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.

There are seven more. You can find them all online. After reading all ten, I was motivated to add one of my own.

If you write a book, a poem, a play, a piece of music, or anything at all, it will never be perfect. Write anyway.

So I will continue to write my book. Probably slowly and haltingly. Certainly imperfectly. But maybe one day down the road and around the bend, I will complete it. Mistakes and all.

Selected Works

"As Turner weaves her tale with a wealth of vivid detail, she avoids both sentimentality and patness."
--Deb Richardson-Moore
The Greenville (SC) News, Dec. 31, 1995
"In a lifetime of reading, a handful of books stand out—this is one of them."
–Michelle Rapkin, Editor, Doubleday/Crossings Book Club
"This thoughtful, warmly humorous novel takes a fresh look at the age-old search for peace and joy in a troubled, temporal world."
--CBA Marketplace
September 1999
That February afternoon was equal parts joy and heartache, but it began a journey Elizabeth Landis would never forget.
"Besides the fact that he was a married man, it was clear as soon as he spoke that his mission was anything but romantic. 'Do you have a toilet plunger?' he asked."
“Genuine humor and well-crafted characters make this a memorable and inspiring novel.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"I love putting little pieces together to make something beautiful. In a sense I saw the structure of this book as a mosaic." --From an interview with the author
"You can't rush through Jamie's books any more than you can rush through life itself."
--Sheila Petre
Mercersburg (PA) Journal, July 9, 2014

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