Making mistakes (aka doing it my way)

Frank Sinatra fans know the words: “Regrets, I’ve had a few…” Of course, he’s talking about things he’s done – or not done – he wishes he didn’t. In other words, mistakes. But each stanza ends with “I did it my way.”

I’ve made a few (dozen) mistakes in my life. Everything from minor things (grabbing that cookie sheet in the oven with my bare hand because I was engrossed in a book) to slightly more major (not slowing quite enough on the NYS Thruway in a winter storm, resulting in a crumpled back-end and a demolished light post). But true regrets? I have to echo Frank. “I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.”

Honestly, there’s only one major thing – okay, maybe two – I really, truly regret. Both of them center around writing.

When I was in college, I was a journalist. Sports journalism, to be specific. I covered swimming, tennis and basketball. And I really loved it. I got to watch the games, meet some fairly terrific people, and then tell the world about it in a story. Pretty cool, right? But when it came time to decide on a career, I abandoned what, in retrospect, made me really happy: writing. Long nights, yes. Frustration when deadline loomed and the story wouldn’t come together, sure. But words on the page, that made me happy. My friend Amy, my co-editor, stuck with it. She’s a successful sports journalist now. Has won awards from our alma mater’s journalism school.

Yes, I am slightly jealous.

I am also one of those people. Someone who had a pen in her hand at an early age, full of stories to tell. It’s how my best friend and I coped with the horrific jungle that is middle school. We wrote stories. I (mainly) did the narrative. She did the illustrations. Since neither of us were cool, witty, or popular, we got to be all three on the page. I moved on to writing (bad) urban fantasy. The character was a total Mary Sue, surrounded by people who were carbon-copies of those in my life. But hey, I could lose myself for a while and was happy.

In 1998, my husband said to me, “You read mystery all the time. Why don’t you try writing one?” So I did. A traditional mystery, with an amateur sleuth, set relatively near where I grew up. Again, the character was a Mary Sue. The others were ripped from my friends. And then, life happened. And I made my second mistake.

I stopped writing.

Working, paying a mortgage, raising kids, the car payments… they were all more important. Or so I thought. Who cared if I was, deep down, dissatisfied? So what if I felt something was missing. This other stuff was important I tell you. Adult stuff. Serious business. I wasn’t in middle-school anymore.

Then, in 2011, I got fired. Now what? I still had kids, a mortgage and car payments. What was I going to do?

“Why don’t you take the summer off?” my husband asked. “You know, finish that novel.” My uber-responsible eldest child personality objected. I was an adult. I had responsibilities. I couldn’t just take the summer off. Was he insane? With the aid of an Excel spreadsheet, my husband mapped it out. I qualified for maximum unemployment benefits. Our bills were manageable. Yes, I really could take the summer off.

I was still tempted not to. “This is a mistake,” I said.

“Trust me,” my husband said. “Take the summer off. Write your book. It won’t be a mistake.”

And it wasn’t. I rediscovered that love of words. That writing was, in fact, the thing that I was called to do, what made me feel good. Now, the book, well, it was full of mistakes. I think I made every single one of them – everything a writer is told not to do. Mary Sue, too much backstory, slow pacing, blah, blah, blah.

But I wrote it. And that opened the door.

Looking back, I want to say 2011 was the time I corrected my mistake. And yeah, maybe turning away from writing all those years ago wasn’t the best decision. But my older, wiser, self now wonders if it was really a mistake. As Kait and Diane talked about this week, maybe those wrong turns brought me to where I am supposed to be. Maybe if I hadn’t made them, I’d be in a completely different place, one where I didn’t have a finished novel and an interested agent. Maybe I hadn’t lived enough to be ready to write those stories. If that’s the case, were those decisions really mistakes? I don’t know. Maybe. But maybe not.

Standing here, I can only echo Frank again: I certainly did it my way.

Mary Sutton | @mary_sutton73

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Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She's worked for fifteen years in the corporate world, but finds making things up is far more satisfying than writing software manuals. A lifelong mystery fan, her short fiction has been published in online magazines Uppagus and Mysterical-e. She has also had stories included in Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales, Blood on the Bayou (the 2016 Bouchercon anthology), Fish Out of Water, and Mystery Most Historical. She is a past president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at http://lizmilliron.com, find her on Facebook at https://facebook.com/LizMilliron, or follow her on Twitter (@LizMilliron).

11 thoughts on “Making mistakes (aka doing it my way)”

  1. Agree. So interesting to read people’s writing journeys. And glad you made it to the book, Mary, however you got there. I share that prod from a husband – mine (now ex, but that’s a different tale), said exactly the same thing to me back in 1994 – and I wrote two-thirds of what ended up being my first Local Foods mystery 18 years later!

  2. Mary, no wonder we’re such good friends. Our writing journeys are remarkably similar. You’re a few years behind me because, well, you’re a few years younger. But I do believe that slice of life between the grade school/high school writing and the rediscovery of our passions wasn’t all for naught. We had to live life. Get some experiences under our belts. And as a result, we have a well of “stuff” to draw on. Had we stayed the writing course all those years ago, we might have gotten our books published sooner, but at what cost? No, thanks. I love my life just as it is. I know you do, too.

  3. I hope this post inspires lots of other people to figure out a way to change their life. It takes sacrifices, and yes, that spreadsheet roadmap is invaluable! but it can be done. Yay!

  4. Annette, if I’m following your path, well, I think I’m on a good one. Based on where you are. 🙂 And yes, I’m pretty happy with where I am now.

    Theresa, I was lucky. Left to my own devices, I would have jumped right back into the working world. Fortunately, my hubby was pretty supportive.

    Diane, I talk about this with several friends. You make the choice to pursue what you want. And in the process, you have to make sacrifices.

  5. Mistakes are the turning points in our lives that make us who we are. Yay for you, for taking that summer off!

  6. Mary, I love love love this post! (The part about trying to convince yourself that you had to deal with the “adult stuff”? Totally.)

    So glad you came back to your calling! You are so clearly on the right path. (Did I tell you that I just bought Power #1 to read with my kids this summer?)

    ps: I also grabbed a cookie sheet barehanded once because distracted…wow, is that painful!…did you have so many bandages that it looked like a Mickey Mouse hand too?

  7. Cynthia, I recently saw a meme on Facebook of a cat, lying on it’s stomach. The caption was, “I can’t adult today. Don’t make me adult today.” Oh, how true. And last night, in a bit of wisdom, my girl said, “I don’t want to be an adult. I like having free wifi, being wrapped in a fluffy blanket of comfort.” 🙂

    I burnt the palm of my hand, so I remember lots of gauze that really didn’t do much.

    And I hope you and your kids enjoy the book!

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