Field Guide: A Few Notes on Mistakes, by Ellene Glenn Moore


First, this: mistakes are everything. Writers must learn this well and quickly. We write, we excise, we add, we abandon. We learn to write the moment but after the moment. We learn to tear down our temples. We learn to take new jobs. We learn to start again.


In a just a moment, I believe, my life will open up and begin. Twenty-one, hand nearly closed around an undergraduate diploma, world on the tip of my tongue, I eat homemade noodles with peanut sauce from a Tupperware in a hotel room four miles from an industrial supply company that come Monday will offer me a job in their management training program. I believe I have something to give. They pay for my room, my rental car speeding without design down a grey and empty highway, they write me a check for $100 to cover incidental expenses. I believe I have something to show for myself. In the morning I take a wrong turn on the way to the warehouse, and I believe I have ruined my chances of making a good impression. They do not tell me the starting salary, but a rogue manager ballparks it at three times more than I believed I might make with a degree in digging through words. I believe I have to sit down. I believe I’ve made my decision. Belief, too, can be synonymous with mistake.


The importance of imagination cannot be overstated. Imagine the setting. Now imagine the structure. Imagine the threads of your work and the threads of your life knotted together into something valuable, something that works. Imagine what stays and what goes. Imagine red birds on an empty branch sprouted from snow. Imagine your work as breath and not as plastic bins. No mistake was ever made to grow without imagination. This is the tether that holds your work to the ground, even as it mists up towards the sun. This is the transferable principle.


Many writers are told theirs is the burden of feeling deeply. “I’m a crier,” I laugh to my manager at this new job I am slowly realizing makes me feel like my place in the world is slipping out from under me. Only dark water to stand on. “Oh good,” he replies. When I step away from his desk I brace myself. Here is the mistake: The light diffuses sadly through tall windows, billowing over the nubby carpet. Here is another: The air around me seems heavy. I keep these things to myself for 386 days. I don’t write until it is over.


Mistakes are good for losing yourself. There is power in this—writers can live in that liminal space. Sometimes it is like floating on the surface of the ocean; sometimes it is like pausing in the fast air between the curb and oncoming traffic; sometimes it is like celebrating a birthday alone in a new city on the floor of an apartment stacked on top of two screaming neighbors, whose now slammed door, now silence, now running water is perhaps a sign that one is washing the other’s blood off his arms and throat. We need not go far to lose ourselves.


I learn the ropes. Speak loudly in meetings. Do not take notes; this makes you appear weak. Do not smile at anyone outside of management. Most importantly, use the word “leverage” as much as possible. “Leverage,” like “calibrate” (best accompanied by a hand motion like turning an imaginary knob between forefinger and thumb), is one of those pseudo-technical gestures that reeks of corporate credibility. This is almost exactly the opposite of real-world credibility. Nobody in management will take you seriously if they can understand what you are saying.


My neighbor has not killed his wife. The mistakes of others become potent material when we ignore the mistakes welling up in our own sinks. He runs the shower to cool down while she paces in the kitchen, maybe leaves the house. I listen, unashamed, on my stomach, ear over the vent. Her tears are thick. “You always, always do this!” he wails. Their mistakes become proxy for my own. I roll onto my back and laugh at the cracks in the curved ceiling.


Hard work is important for all writers, but understand that one morning you will receive an email from your manager informing you that HR has “suggested” management trainees work for nine to ten hours each day. When you read between the lines and ask your manager if you need to take on more work, he will sidestep your question and reiterate HR’s “suggestion.” And at the company non-denominational holiday party, after you and another trainee gather your department for a round of tequila shots (understand that the tender at the open bar will not be allowed to serve shots, so you will order six “tequilas on the rocks” with quarter-rounds of lime and several salt packets), you will make a joke about working well but not enough, and your manager will stare at you, like he’s afraid you know a secret, which will make you wonder what you have missed, but inside you will suspect you know. And you will not be surprised the next Wednesday when all but three of the trainees are promoted and guess which you will be. Desperately, you will lick your hand and throw back your drink, cubes of ice knocking against your teeth. You will bite into the spare, tired flesh of your lime garnish, sucking its bitter relief. This is another mistake. File it.


There are times when boxes are planes. Cars we drive. Houses we build. Ships we sail. Rockets we blast. Sleds we maneuver, wind and flurry whipping past our ears, down the spiral staircase of a mountain followed by white wolves from a dark forest. Tents we erect when the coast is clear. Trains at the foot of the mountain, carrying us over rocky landscapes towards a home where the sun is in our face. Beds where we dream of thousands of tiny boxes that sparkle in a deep sky. There are times when boxes are boxes, and we talk about how many boxes of socket head cap screws to put in them and how long it will take for a bigger box with wheels to take the box to the person who has bought the box from us and we put a sticker on the box at the end of a conveyor belt that runs in a square around the warehouse behind the office. The office is its own box and inside are 327 smaller boxes and inside of one of those boxes is me and inside of me is a universe folding in on itself.


I tell myself to write this story again and again. Not long after I back into my neighbor’s car for the first time, after weeks of us all squeezing four cars into a two-car driveway, someone, perhaps our landlord, erects thin and springy poles in the grass along either side of the cement. I take this as a personal affront. Maneuvering my car out of my spot against the side of the house takes a particularly thoughtful set-up. First, I must have parked at a severe angle against the hydrangea bushes, or there’s no going to work today. I must back straight out at first, holding my breath in the inch clearance between my back bumper and the steps to the porch. Then, before I back into the fence between our driveway and the neighbors’ patio, I stop and pull forward again, this time swinging into the six inches between the driver’s side of my car and the rear bumper of my neighbor’s. I now back out once more, making a slow S past my neighbor’s car, alongside the fence, then away from the fence, over the berm and onto the lawn before I readjust one final time, brake sharply for the school children walking behind my car, and exit into the street. My muddy tire tracks in the grass are no mistake, I defend myself brutally, but a violent necessity.


I have to tell the HR Manager (the real one, the one that the company hired from out-of-house to help the one that started on the management track as a freshly-minted, sloe-eyed business major from Ohio State University) that I have never felt unsafe at the company. A few hours before, stretching in the breakfast line, I jumped when that man who whistles in the warehouse put his fingers in my armpit like a tickle and said, “coochie-coochie-coo.” I reeled back, astonished. I tell the HR Manager, “I don’t need to be touched in the workplace.” I tell him, “I don’t need to be infantilized by a coworker.” I tell him, “But I don’t think he thought he was being aggressive.” I tell him, “I’ve never felt unsafe here.” I tell him “I’ve never felt alone here, or undervalued. I’ve never felt like I was unspooling into ribbons of PVC heat-shrink tubing onto the warehouse floor.”


I make notes on the possibility of mistakes. Mistakes waiting to be discovered. Driving home from work during a winter-night storm. Braking the entire length of an 18-wheeler that overtakes me from a left-access on-ramp. A rumble strip screaming when an SUV passes me on the right and in the shoulder. A slab of packed snow plummeting to my windshield from an overpass, where the wind lifted it from the roof of a car whose owner couldn’t be bothered to brush it off. A car run off the road, leaving black tracks in the snow, and the 911 operator explaining to me that 480 runs east and west, not north and south, and my description makes such little sense to her that she needs to transfer me to another county’s call center. Once home, I fall from my car past the snow and slush and into a well bored deep in the ground. At the bottom of the well are the usual things: stone, water, some soft soil and rubble. There is the sound of my breath, echoing slowly off the curved walls. Here, too, the possibility of mistake. I climb carefully. I make notes.


When my landlord puts up his poles, I can only assume he has seen the tire treads limning the lawn along the drive. And I don’t care but I do care as one pole clatters along the undercarriage of my car, and I scowl as it springs back to attention. Then, weeks later, when snow stiffens the geography of my street into a white, indiscernible desert of flat, I realize the poles, their reflective tips peeking above drifted puffs, were only there to guide me out.


Revision is difficult at first. “Nothing is forever,” my mother tells me over the phone, but I can think of one thing that is. Nevertheless, sitting in the fishbowl conference room with my back to the door, I confess to a colleague that I have revised my plan. I will be leaving. I’m not sure when, but I will be leaving. He is another mistake, in another story where I lay in bed and cover my eyes and wonder if his plane has left the ground. I have already revised that story. Now, I expect him to express disappointment in my inability to stick it out. I expect him, perhaps, to convince me to stay. But he leans in, nods his head, says, “My advice to you is don’t wait. Run.” He says, “If you know you want to leave, just go.” He says, “You will be fine. I wish I didn’t wait until I was thirty.” I wonder if he will keep my secret. Several weeks later he calls me into the fishbowl to tell me he’s given his own two weeks’. I ask if I may hug him, and he consents. His blue-checked shirt is warm. I hold tight, wishing myself silently into my own future.


Now this: mistakes are everything. Write, abandon, start again. But understand you will do this on your own, over and over. You may never learn. In the months leading up to my pathetically veiled departure, I drive every day at noon to a duck pond a quarter mile from the office. In a sometimes sunny corner of the parking lot, I idle my car for half an hour, roll down the windows, slip off my close-toed office shoes. Hiking up my skirt I let my legs dangle out the car window, lunch in my lap. Sometimes Bob Marley, sometimes The Faces. Every day, alone in the sometimes sun. There is no other way to write 386 days of mistakes.



Ellene Glenn Moore is a writer living in sunny South Florida. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University, where she held a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellowship. Ellene’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Raleigh ReviewBrevity, Best New PoetsNinth LetterCritical Flame, and elsewhere, and her chapbook The Dark Edge of the Bluff is forthcoming from Green Writers Press in 2017.

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