How to Screw Up
A slightly misleading clickbait title there, because we can all screw up without assistance. We screw up by commission and omission. We forget, or erase; we don’t care, or do harm. We fail to listen, we fail to act. We say stupid things. Stupider than that. You know that thing you said twenty years ago that still comes into your mind at 3am and makes you sink your teeth into the pillow? Those. We write books or blog posts or emails or tweets that, in retrospect, make us wonder if we were high, or maybe possessed by whatever demon is wearing Donald Trump’s skin, or at least if we could use that as an excuse. We hurt people. We hurt ourselves. We say and do and write things that were meant to be funny or positive and turn out to be hurtful and stupid, stupid, why did I ever think that was a good idea? We fail.
The question is not whether we will screw up, but what we do about it.
The first step is usually to face the fact of screw-uppage, which is harder than it sounds. Denial is so much easier. I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean that. You definitely said Thursday. I’m sure I didn’t get that email.
I like to see myself as a nice person. (Stop laughing at the back, I need my delusions.) To pluck an example out of a current situation in my genre: I believe in diversity and representation. I am working hard to turn my fictional landscape into one that’s home to a wide variety of people. But I have got that wrong before, in a number of ways, and I will doubtless get it wrong again, no matter how hard I work and how good my intentions. (I have an old manuscript in my drawer that I pulled out recently. It was written fifteen years ago with the absolute best of intentions, and I almost cringed myself to death reading it. Thank God fasting that everyone rejected the damn thing; how right they were to do so.) I don’t want to screw up, but the fact is, I’ve got a shedload of things wrong in my 42 years on the planet to date and I see no reason why that’s likely to change.
I don’t want to get things wrong, because to get it wrong likely means that I hurt someone, and I’m not here to hurt people (except fictional bad guys, who can expect to be eaten by eels). But it’s dangerously easy to let my desire not to hurt people morph into a refusal to admit I have done so. I am not the kind of person who hurts others, therefore I didn’t hurt others and you’re just oversensitive. You took it the wrong way, you misunderstood, you’re making a drama about nothing. Because if I did hurt you, there goes my cherished self-image as a nice person who’s good at stuff, to be replaced with the self-image of a crass, stupid screw-up blundering her way over other people’s feet.
And of course the problem there is that it’s all about me, about my feelings when I screw up, my desire not to be a hurtful person. Rather than about the fact that I hurt you.
Humans are ego monsters. My pinprick of shame at feeling like a bad person can very easily seem more real, more important to me than the punch in the gut I delivered to someone else. My rugby team has, as their operating principles, the four pillars of strength, work rate, discipline, and humility, which is something I often muse on while they’re resetting the scrum for the fifteenth time. Humility can sound weak, but it isn’t a weakness: it’s something we have to learn, and strive for, and it goes hand in hand with strength. Strength without humility is bullying, and overbearing, and ultimately not strength at all—because if I can’t say I was wrong or It’s not all about me, if I can’t look honestly at myself and take another person’s weight on my heart, how weak must I really be?
And humility doesn’t just mean saying sorry. I had a friend who screwed up a lot, and would always apologise freely and generously for doing so. It took me a long time to realise that her apologies demanded not just that her friends forgive her, but that we then had to reaffirm what a good person she was because she apologised so humbly for the things she’d done to us–rather, than, you know, not repeatedly screwing us over in the first place. She’s not my friend any more.
Offering an apology doesn’t entitle anyone to forgiveness, and a performative apology–the kind made in a spirit of “look how sorry I am, therefore you have to forgive me!”–is just another way for the apologiser to feel better. We all know it. One of the great romance moments is ‘the grovel’—where the alpha male hero (usually) is brought to acknowledge what he did wrong. Readers are scalpel-sharp at distinguishing a good grovel, which is about unconditionally expressing remorse, making amends, changing things, from one which is designed to win forgiveness, smooth over the unpleasantness and re-establish the status quo.
Apologies are important, acknowledgement is important, but to my mind, the fundamental question is whether, having screwed up, I do better next time. Even if that just means, in practice, finding different ways to make less bad mistakes.
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett)
All of which is a great deal easier to say than do. But if I didn’t believe that people–I, we, all of us–can do just a tiny bit better by one another, I wouldn’t be writing romance.
KJ Charles just signed a contract to write horror. She is a writer and freelance editor who lives in London with her husband, two kids, an out-of-control garden and an increasingly murderous cat. Her most recent release is A Gentleman’s Position, which by coincidence features a hero with a lot of apologising to do.
Find her on Twitter @kj_charles or on Facebook, join her Facebook group, or get the newsletter.