Making Mistakes (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

When I first learned about the theme for this month, I was stumped. I couldn't think of a single embarrassing moment. At least not one I felt I could build a whole post around. I'm not hiding anything, either. I really couldn't think of a good, flat-on-my-face pratfall. And there, I realized, was my story.

I'm too careful.

I need to stop that. Really, I do. I'm so afraid of making mistakes that I often miss out on the messiness of living, on taking chances, on making a fool of myself in the service of something greater than myself.

The control freak in me has a chokehold on my life, and sometimes on my airways in the form of lung-crushing panic attacks.

I can laugh about this, fortunately. In my office, there's a picture of a dog stranded on a rock in the middle of the sea. The caption is a quote from John Ravenscroft Peel: "I never make stupid mistakes, only very clever ones."

That's me all over.

Maybe it's the root of my extreme care: I'm smart. I am. I can humble-brag about it now that I know it gets me exactly nowhere. Being smart has been part of my identity for such a long time, almost since before I can remember, since I hit every standardized test thrown at me out of the park and won any award my brain could win. But if I make mistakes, then maybe I'm not smart, after all. And if I'm not smart, then what am I? And what will people think of me?

My all-time favorite book, Johnny Tremain, is about a boy in Boston on the eve of the American Revolution, but for me as a child, it was about dealing with that "gifted" label, something I don't think was even around when the book was written in 1943. When I returned to the book as an adult, it was about the ways giftedness fails us. Because, really, being smart has never gotten me anywhere, but my fear of losing that label through doing something foolish has held me back more times than I care to count.

The publication of my first novel, THE LAST SISTER, has been rife with people thinking I've made mistakes, not in the writing (though I know those are there and I know there are plenty of people happy to tell me about them), but in my choice to write a book set in an obscure time and place, the frontier south during the Anglo-Cherokee War of 1759-1761. I can't count the bemused smiles I've gotten from people in the industry when I tell them I've written straight historical fiction for young adults and there are no pretty dresses or noblemen in it, just people living and dying in a war no one's ever heard of. The number of times I've been asked, "Why? Why would you write a book this hard to sell?" Not always in so many words, but sometimes straight up, exactly like that. When the book turned out to be critically well-received, I was told I'd made a mistake in publishing with a small press because, you know, these days, a book is either a blockbuster or a failure.

Except, just, I really don't think either writing the book in the first place or publishing with a small press was a mistake at all.

Anything in writing and publishing is a risk, and I've never gotten anywhere except by taking them. Being smart by itself has never gotten me anywhere. What has moved me along is taking risks and making mistakes and sometimes falling flat on my face.

So, as a writer, I find myself on the verge of not being careful at all. This is old wisdom, but I'm going to write the books I want to write, and if they lead me down the path of bemused smiles, then so be it.

I'm currently making another mistake in the form of a standalone companion to THE LAST SISTER, a book I put off writing because I was afraid of those bemused smiles. I'm going to keep writing about the eighteenth century because I love writing about the eighteenth century. And then I'm going to keep making mistakes, stupid ones and clever ones, because the real mistake is being too careful and caring too much about what people think and ending up with no embarrassing stories to tell. And now, I think I am going to have a cup of tea and write a book about it. Tea, that is.



  1. Great post. You are so right about the fact that getting published by a small press is not a mistake. Heck as a librarian and a writer, I hear so many people every week who lament the fact that they wanted to write, but chickened out. My late mother A. Carman Clark, was my best writer friend. She had her first book published at age 67 and her first mystery published at age 83. It took 40 years for the Maine Mulch Murder to get past other people's quizzical looks and furrowed brows, but it was a success. I wish you plenty of that as an author.

  2. Your book sounds very interesting and different. Not a mistake at all! Them asking you why you wrote it is the mistake.

    1. Thanks, Margie! It does sometimes take all my professionalism to keep my cool with that type of question. It's like asking, why would you be creative? Silly. (Sorry it took me so long to see your comment.)


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