When I hear someone say something along the lines of, “mistakes were made.” I immediately translate it from the bureaucratic passive voice to what it actually means: “I messed up.” Sometimes children will ask, “how will I know when I’m grown up?” I would suggest that part of the answer to that question is, “When you make a mistake, you are able to say, ‘I made a mistake.’” Learning to accept responsibility for our actions is surprisingly difficult and surprisingly rare.
Being an author means having to say “mistakes were made” rather frequently, however. As an author, I will make spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and factual errors. I’ll have one story in my head and mix it with another story when I put it on paper. I’ll imagine I put it down accurately, when in point of fact I’ve completely botched it. I’ll think I remember a detail, a figure, a title or a name, and come to discover—always too late, after the piece has already gone to press—that I got it wrong. Most of the time, all I can do is shrug. Mercifully, most of the time no one actually notices. But then on occasion I’ll get an email or a phone call—usually from someone I know—asking me how I came up with something, or what I was thinking, or “did you mean to say that?”
Most mistakes by most people tend to be slips of the tongue. Verbal mistakes, generally speaking, have a much shorter shelf-life than mistakes in printed works, especially books, which will likely endure for as long as there are libraries. The only comfort in a mistake in a book is the knowledge that there are hundreds of thousands of books published each year, and so the odds of anyone noticing your egregious error on page sixty-one are slim and none. After all, I hadn’t noticed the mistake in my book, The Bible’s Most Fascinating People, until one of my students called me on the telephone one afternoon.
“I was reading the story of Rahab on page sixty-one and you say that she hid the spies in her well. But in the book of Joshua in the Bible, doesn’t it say that she hid them under sticks on her roof? Is there a translation issue I didn’t know about?”
“You’re just always so careful about details and…”
“Well, I seem to have made a mistake. Maybe I forgot that wells aren’t located on roofs?”
“You made a mistake?”
“Why so surprised? You’ve seen me drop and break my coffee mug how many times?”
“At least three.”
“There you go. You even bet that I’d break my current mug in only a week on that signup sheet that my wife posted by the coffee maker: ‘How long will Robin keep his new mug? Make a guess!’”
(She had apparently become annoyed after I had broken the previous two mugs she had given me as gifts. I think around thirty people made guesses on its survival. The youth group in my church seemed to really get into it. My history with mugs is notorious).
“Yeah. Didn’t Rick think it would survive only an hour? I thought I was being generous when I wrote that it would survive a whole week.”
“And here it’s been nearly a year and a half and it’s not broken yet. Oops…”
“What was that noise?”
“Nothing. Thanks for pointing out the error in my book.”
“No problem. Any time.”
See, this is why authors don’t like to reread their books after they’ve been published. And yet, surprisingly, having students and others point out the mistakes in my book is oddly satisfying. My first thought was, “wow, someone actually read the book and paid attention.” Maybe I should claim I made mistakes on purpose and offer small prizes to anyone who finds them?
Authors know that there are going to be problems that we missed. Despite my best efforts, despite rereading it dozens of times before it went to press, despite my wife and friends reading through it, despite all the editors who also read through it—the simple reality of the process is that I, as an author, remain fully and completely human, subject to all the problems that affect other humans. But unlike other humans, whose foul ups are most commonly known only to spouses and offspring (A wife especially. She is able to list off every error one has ever committed for the last twenty-eight years since she first met you and oddly she decided to marry you anyhow even with those three years of knowing you before tying the knot), an author’s foul-ups are visible to all for all eternity.
Of course, no matter what you do in your life, “I made a mistake” is a phrase that has the potential of getting used nearly every day. Though I must admit that for me it’s not as bad as it is for say, professional athletes, who get to have a referee blow a whistle and throw a flag every time he or she makes a mistake so that everyone in the stands and on TV sees the problem—and whose other errors will be rerun on the sports channels from now to the end of time, while sportscasters pontificate, “so what was he thinking when he threw the ball over there?.” Or for actors, whose mistakes are called bloopers and wind up as bonus features on the DVD.
Actually, I think it is worst of all for politicians and others working for the government. Their errors will be dissected and everyone will assume that they are not just stupid, but actually malevolent and evil. The same probably goes for corporations, CEOs, and of course lawyers.
Meanwhile, any mistakes you make on your job, say in the office or at the local fast food joint, will be kept track of by your boss. Too many of them, you’ll find yourself escorted outside by building security with your personal belongings stuffed in a box you’re clutching in your hands.
It is, of course, the negative reactions of those around us and the embarrassment of it all that makes us all want to deny our mistakes. It’s so much easier to say “mistakes were made,” or even better, to yell, “it was all HIS fault” while we point in glee—and relief.
I wish I could say, “that copy editor is to blame” or “it’s a typo” or “a well” really does mean “a roof” if you squint and tilt your head just so. But I know better. I simply made a mistake.