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Risking Mistakes Is What Writing Is All About

Writing is risky business. For the same reasons people fear public speaking, many are afraid to write. For fear of looking dumb, or making mistakes or enemies. But controversy is inherent in important political work. I think more people need to take the risk of writing...
Risking Mistakes Is What Writing Is All About
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)

I think one of the main reasons more people do not write and publish articles is the same reason public speaking is a top fear in America. People don't want to look stupid, especially in front of a large audience, such as the internet provides. The most dreaded experience is making mistakes. Surely making mistakes makes you look stupid. Or does it? I would instead argue that making mistakes only makes a writer look human, not stupid. We all learn from mistakes. Not only does the one making the mistake learn from it, but those watching the mistake and recovery, also learn. A writer who takes no risks is one boring writer, honestly. You cannot hit the mark each and every time as a writer, and if you did, would that be perfect? For me, part of writing is political exploration and bushwhacking is not a perfect science.

In the first few months of law school, I was completely confused as to what we were supposed to be doing, what we were supposed to be learning! That sounds nuts, especially at $20,000 a year in tuition, but up until law school, most academia had followed very predictable patterns. You basically learned a set of information, then regurgitated it onto paper later, as well as recited that you recognized the information in class time, so if you had that set of talents, you excelled at school. Pretty simple. But law school gave you 300 pounds of books, did not tell you what to do with them, and the classes seemed to have nothing to do with anything. They were like freeform rap sessions! To make things worse, we did not have regular classwork assignments or regular tests or quizzes. Instead, you had one midterm at the 6 month mark and one cumulative final at the year end, for each of the routine 6-8 classes per year. With no way to gauge your own progress, it was like being in a thick fog often. And a year's work boiled down to one 3 hour essay exam at the end of it all for each class of the 6-8 classes. And these 3 hour exams also all took place in one week's time! My brain was complete mush at the end of that week. If you asked me for peanut butter, I would stare in confusion, would that be civ pro, contracts, torts? It took a while to recover from finals week, physically. Using your brain like that actually takes a lot of physical energy.

I remember one of the first Contracts classes in law school, we spent the whole class time learning what the answer *wasn't,* but never what the answer *was!* This is called the "Socratic method" of teaching. Up until then, they always just hand fed us the answers, basically, and we memorized them. This method made us seek out the answers on our own, never telling what the answer is. In time, they said they were going to teach us to think differently, not to memorize things. They said we can always go look up case precedents and laws, that was not what law school was about. They wanted to teach us to think like lawyers, first and foremost. Although that sounds like indoctrination, what I learned in this realm was truly brilliant schooling, in my opinion, and I came to really respect academia and the legal field, with all its obvious horrific flaws, after law school. Until law school, I had never really had an academic challenge. Law school made me hurt. I had to *want it bad* to go through what I did to finally pierce that veil of knowledge.

I talked to one of the Deans about this confusion over what I was supposed to be learning, not knowing if we were supposed to be memorizing case names, or judges, or precedent or what, and she said she understood what I was saying and I just needed to keep absorbing, and it will hit me like lightning at some point. I basically went to law school on blind faith at that point, thinking, "Oh my god, I have no idea what we are learning. I hope it does hit me before finals!" I sat in classes for 8+ hours a day, did 8 hours of studying a night, hoping and praying I was not killing myself for nothing. Then it hit me. Like a revelation. I began to see what we were doing. I was beginning to think differently. They kept saying in class, that there were no "right answers" to the essay exams at midterms and finals, but rather there were "better" answers. Oh crap. "Better" answers. And what is worse is law school could not care less if you can regurgitate the rules or case law. They want to see you *apply* what you memorized to see if you memorized it. They want to see if you memorized when a rule would be invoked, how the rule would work, when to use different rules based on combined scenarios, not the reverse which is too common in academia. Too often in academia, the routine would be to give you both sets of the equation, then ask what given scenarios would fit what rules. Not in law school. You are taught to think in complex ways for law school exams, like no exams I have taken elsewhere, *because* there are no right answers.

In law school, you get a "race horse" exam, meaning if you ran full speed the whole exam, you could still not get all the issues in the exam. A typical law school exam consists of a one page essay about a set of circumstances. And an empty blue book to write in. You have 3 hours to apply all you learned in the year of law school to that one page scenario, and may the "better" answers win. And when they say better, they are not just talking about spitting out rules and cases and applying them to the exam scenario. Instead, they also throw in *organization and clarity* as a major part of what you are graded on. So it is not enough to just ramble out the facts and to apply them. You have to also spend time organizing the presentation into the most time efficient, coherent, complete, persuasive piece of work, that will be "better" than the others in the class, as you want your $20,000 tuition and all that work for the year to not be a complete waste.

My midterm exam in Contracts was a small one paragraph Nike shoe ad. The test had a picture of the Nike ad, and said "Discuss the contract issues." You had 3 hours to apply everything you had learned. Whatever you had taught yourself, and remembered in your head, about Contracts, was all you had to draw on during that exam. It was not like any normal tests I had taken. I enjoyed the mental challenge, honestly. But through those experiences, I have learned that what I am seeking is not always an answer, but a better question. Much of "winning" in law school and courtrooms is about asking the right questions, more than having the right answers. That is a different mindset, and much of what they were talking about when they said they wanted to teach us to think like attorneys. So now, when I write articles, I am often not trying to propose answers, but rather better questions. I think that eludes people often.

A friend of mine recently said, "You know, all those things you are saying in articles in public will forever stick with you." Well, duh! That is the risk I am personally taking in writing from the heart, from personal experiences, with my real name, instead of writing about what someone told me in the mainstream media or behind the safety of anonymity. That is the risk in taking a political stand on anything in public. That is the risk we take in publicly asking questions. And the harder the questions, the more the controversy. It seems once you take a stand, you become a target. And anything that conflicts with the status quo quickly attracts confrontational scenes. Some right wing guy has me on his website listed under "Links to Left Wing Scum." My website is listed along with Alternet, Counterpunch ("Pure trash," it says by their name), Infoshop.org, In These Times, MoveOn, and more. This same guy featured one of my articles on his blog under the heading, "The Biggest Piece Of Shit On The Internet." Things like that are why people are afraid to write their opinions down and ask more questions, much less take stabs in the dark at what could be "wrong" answers.

The most response I ever got from one article was in a piece that said men were getting the welfare as a subsidy for their unpaid child support payments, not the welfare mothers.
This sent 200+ angry emails to my inbox from men telling me what sluts the mothers of their kids were and why they did not pay their child support. It also brought a lot of fictitious accusations and character assassinations of me, personally, from people who do not know me and made quite amazing and erroneous presumptions. If you are going to write something controversial, you need to be prepared for the backlash, but writers are human too! We become targets in flame wars online, through taking a stand, and that is why people do not want to take a stand, in public, by writing articles. One guy did a google of me and posted a long list of things on the internet that he felt people "should know about (my) past," such as "Kirsten, the anarchist, Kirsten, the peace activist, Kirsten the love expert, Kirsten, the lesbian law scholar, Kirsten, the lesbian feminist columnist." Then he goes on, "Kirsten is a psycho bitch with way too much time on her hands. Get real bitch. Nobody cares. You are just our latest big laugh. In Kirsten's case she is a lesbian who has simply failed to use this uniquely feminist system to her advantage. For a lesbian feminist that claims to have a B.A. she most certainly acts like a retard. Just as I thought. She is most likely already committing paternity fraud. What must have happened is that one of the male victims caught onto her fraud, and then he quit paying." Wow! Paternity fraud, using the uniquely feminist system to her advantage? What world is this guy in? But, that is what the cat drags in when you throw articles out to the public.

It seems if you write controversial political material, *you* and not your writing, are often up for the character assassinations. Here are some of the comments sent to me about some of my articles: "You are a complete loser. You're a typical liberal bitch." "You're Pure Scum." "Kirsten, this is the most ridiculous rant I've read in ages - you clearly are a paranoid neurotic who needs serious long-term psychiatric help. Your responses to posts are indicative of a seriously unstable, delusional person who is likely a danger to themselves and their community. Please seek out mental health services immediately." "Wow - you are the craziest bitch I have ever heard of." "You're a relief bum." "A complete nutcase in every way." "Kristen is your typical Kerry Voter." "The child should be taken from you, and you should be put in prison for child abuse!" So apparently, now I am not only committing paternity fraud in the feminist welfare system, but am also a loser, bitch, scum, psychiatrically dangerous, a relief bum, a Kerry voter and my child should have been taken away from me for some unspecified form of child abuse. Wow. After a while, it gets to be so much of this, that it starts to roll off you.

Every now and then, a reasonable critique of my articles comes out. I wrote a somewhat incoherent article on the RNC protests being very classist in who got to participate and who did not. I was angry, hurt and emotional when I wrote it. Unfortunately, people really liked it and it spread like wildfire on IMCs worldwide leaving trails of 50+ comments on IMC sites that posted it, as people fought it out over class (or how crazy I am) online. I got angry at the comments, and stayed emotional, then decided I had to just not look. One random net blogger said of that article "Kirsten Anderberg makes an interesting point... but the argument is intellectually lazy... (she makes) a good point--but then suggests (something to the contrary of her argument)." And that is true. That article was not properly organized, it had logical flaws, it would have failed as a law school exam. It was tainted with raw emotion. It asked some of the right questions, but in a very sloppy form and with bad argumentation. To date, I would say that was my most poorly worded published article. Was it a mistake? Did I make a mistake in public? And what if I did? Is it enough to send me hiding under the covers for fear I may make a mistake again? No. Will it kill my writing career? Probably not. Was it worth it to get those questions on the table? Maybe.

Mistakes can be humbling. They can be educational. For the one making the mistake and those watching too. I am not trying to be "perfect" as a writer or a person. I am searching for more questions, better questions. I have no answers, and I am following no map here. I have decided to risk making a fool of myself in public, and risking being labeled all kinds of untrue things, to ask the questions out loud. To say, "Hey, does anyone else notice that the Emperor has no clothes?" I understand why people are afraid to risk all this negative feedback just to write articles, for free, for independent media. Articles are like tattoos. As I grow and change, no one updates old articles I wrote that are still out there in print.

Yes, it is scary being a writer. It is scary talking about things no one wants to talk about, things that even make the anarchist community fight, such as classism. But I have always said I would rather aim high and miss the mark, than aim low and hit it. I would rather ask the questions I feel I need to, than shut up out of fear. I would rather address scary issues, such as welfare, and take abuse, than to take abuse as a welfare mom in silence. It is a choice. I guess one does need to make some choices in writing in public. One does need to access risks, I suppose. But one needs to weigh in the risks of silence somewhere also. I think more people should take the risk, and start to write. Hell, I *personally* will take some of the heat off of your mistakes with my own blunders over time, so be less frightened and more rebellious. Use the pen as a weapon. Risk looking foolish. Risk asking the right questions.

homepage: homepage: http://www.kirstenanderberg.com

thanks Kirsten 18.Aug.2004 14:19

becca

I recently wrote a piece that PDX indymedia featured called "white supremacist images on portland police alliance website". It turns out that the leader of the police union says the images are related to a story that the organiztion ran in 2001 about the danger of neo-nazis on the web. There are still unanswered questions, such as why the pictures weren't there a couple months ago, if they allegedly have been there since 2001. But frankly it looked as if I made assumptions and got people all riled up about nothing. At least that's what the people who are hating on me are saying.
But I think you're right- if we don't take risks then we'll never make change in our lives or in our communities. If I don't continue taking the risk of trying to expose such rot, (and facing the accompanying risks of losing all my social support and being attacked by nazis and on and on) then I'm folding to the eventuality of defeat, because I know the cards are stacked against me.

As for the role of emotion in this kind of writing, I think its undervalued and is often used as an excuse by people trying to tear down writing or writers by casting them as "irrational" or even "hyterical woman". Often "irrational" is used as synonomous to "uneducated" and this can be a very classist kind of slander. The "hysterical woman" thing speaks for itself. I personally feel that you were justified in your RNC article on an emotional basis, even if you didn't get all your facts together or your editing tight. The article brought up very real dynamics within the activist scene (at least in PDX and Seattle) even if the illustration you were using was inaccurate. I don't think people should write off the entire article, even though that's what it seems like many people would like to do. In the same way, my writing on the cops' site was emotionally justified in that looking at that image index, it totally looked like a white supremacist index, and cops are acting white supremacist, so if it looks like a fish and smells like a fish, well I'd guess it is a fish (even if it seems too dumb to be a fish).

And the RNC article DID a lot, at least in my life. It triggered another article, or at least focused attention onto the subject matter called "white trash vs. white guilt" which also had innaccuracies, and some very good points about how the left has no place for poor white people. I responded to the story very personally becuase i felt excited that my experience might finally be relevant to what someone is talking about. As a result of criticisms I made and some that my husband made of some classist dynamics in activism, many people I know are now very uncomfortable with us. I think "pissed" is what they said. I feel painfully alienated, but at least its finally out in the open. I came from grass-roots, and I'm going back. It's a positive thing, and something that was a long time coming.

Our politics are personal. If your politics are personal, the things you witness around you inform your political perspective. I appreciate that you write about things so personally, and you write about how you feel about things. That's honest, as opposed to reporters who report "facts" devoid of their personal context or "slant".

Brevity is a virtue 18.Aug.2004 15:19

writing teacher

nuff said.

writing teacher... 19.Aug.2004 03:47

kirsten

Writing teacher, here's a quote to ponder: Teaching is for those not good enough to do what they teach professionally. Just a reaction to your english teacher critique...on brevity. So do you not see the irony of coming on here and saying that after the article is about people coming after me and dissing me cuz I am an easy target as a writer? Geez...this caddy comment by writing teacher is EXACTLY the kind of caddy shit I deal with all the time simply cuz I take the time to write.

No, brevity is a bumper-sticker 19.Aug.2004 08:30

clamydia

I prefer intelligent articulation.

know where you are coming from 19.Aug.2004 12:03

kirsten

And Becca, I know exactly what you are talking about. I even wrote an article not long ago about solitary practitioner protesters cuz it is so complex. We joked we could be the loner bloc at protests. I think it is important to stand up for your beliefs. And what good are friends you have to lie about your beliefs, to have as friends? I think it is a long tradition to isolate out the most radical, and I think it is okay. You look back on almost any social movement and you see this consternation. You look at getting the women's vote. Alice Paul was a leader but then got too radical wanting to picket the white house and her own org dissed her so she quit and formed a new society of women who WOULD picket the white house, but this shit is common...so I would say to Becca, do not take it personally. I have to remember that too.