Embracing your mistakes… and then sometimes not

One thing that is really great about writing, especially if you write (as I do) using a computer, is the ease with which you can make changes and fix your mistakes. Cutting, pasting, deleting with the stroke of a few keys… to me, that’s the kind of wizardry Arthur C. Clarke was referencing when he said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

And if I didn’t appreciate it before, I certainly do now since I’ve taken up inking and painting. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve wished for a convenient key stroke that might fix my obvious error or, more to the point, how many drawings and paintings I’ve had to completely do over. Sometimes I’m able to fix or incorporate my mistake. And there are times (more and more of them, actually, it might come with the territory) when I’m able to simply embrace the imperfection and let the piece stand as is – a testament to the often messy and unwieldy act of creation itself.

I posted about this on Facebook earlier this week. I wrote:

Painting makes me appreciate writing – the ease with which you can cut, paste, and delete. On the other hand, I guess there’s something to be said for the skill of embracing/incorporating my (one bazillion) mistakes.

A friend responded:

One of the favorite things the kids in my art classes used to shout back to me with glee–no mistakes in art!!!

I LIKED her comment, and if Facebook had a LOVE button, I’d have LOVED it instead.

But here’s where it gets tricky for me. On the one hand, I think we all need to stop beating ourselves up, especially when we’re being creative. The fact is, you’ll never reach your full creative potential, no matter what your art form is, if you’re afraid of making mistakes. So I heartily agree with an art teacher who teaches her kids, “There are no mistakes in art!”

On the other hand, I make mistakes, and not all of them are embraceble. I’ve had misspelled words in my  hand-lettered designs. I’ve had perspective and proportion problems (and not the cute kind). I’ve had paint and ink mishaps that have brought me to tears. (Not often, though. I’m not a weepy artist, generally speaking. In fact, I’m pretty stoic. Just ask my husband, who only very occasionally has to scoop my quivering mass up off the studio floor when he comes home.)

Where was I?

Oh, yes! I make mistakes, no doubt about it. And while I value the mindset (or heart-set, as the case may be) that says, “We are all perfectly imperfect and good enough,” there is a part of me that thinks evolution often happens when we acknowledge our mistakes and aren’t okay with them. For this post, I’m going to stick to the subject of art, but I believe what I’m saying applies to life too, maybe even more so. There are times in life when you fuck up, and you know you fucked up, and rather than accept your inevitable imperfection, what you need to do is spend some time getting to the bottom of yourself, analyzing what went wrong and figuring out what needs to change. (And by you, I of course mean me.)

Back to art. This week, I was working on a painting for a series that no one has asked me to do. I want to explore the power of love to move us beyond our differences, and I’m using monsters and whimsy to do it, because that’s how I roll. So as I neared the completion of the first painting – a serpent-y creature and a little girl – I made a mistake. I messed up the little girl’s hand. In terms of how much real estate my error took up in the painting overall, the mistake was minor, but it wasn’t minor because it was distracting. When I tried to fix it, with watercolor and ink, I made it worse, and by the time I was done, I knew I’d have to just redo the whole thing.

Later, in what may or may not have been the  middle of the night, it occurred to me that I might be able to use acrylic paint to fix the problem, since acrylic paint (which I’ve hardly worked with at all) would no doubt completely cover up what I’d done. I got up and in my pj’s I tried my idea, and it worked. And now I know. Next time I make a similar mistake, I’ll know how to fix it. I’ve learned something useful as an artist.

And so here’s the thing. The “perfectly imperfect” message is good, unless you cut yourself so much slack you never feel a need to expand or evolve. And recognizing when you really do need to change something (in your art or in yourself) is good, unless you spend all your evolutionary energy berating yourself.

In the end, I guess what I believe in is evolution. I don’t strive to be perfect, but I do strive to be better – braver, kinder, more aware, more skillful. Not all my mistakes will be fixable, but I’ll keep trying to fix them anyway because that’s how “getting better” works. Or at least, that’s how it works for me. Sometimes.

What do you think?

Oh, and in case you’re curious, here’s the first Monster Love painting. Feel free to tell me what a beautiful hand she has.





And, just in time for Valentine’s Day, I have some new love-fueled art cards in my Etsy shop. (Click the images to get to the shop.)



Plus from now until Valentine’s Day you can make any image in the shop into a Valentine’s Day card – printed with your own message. Come see!



  1. Eileen Lebowitz on January 31, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    I am trying to contact you to see if you would be interested illustrating a children’s book. I would appreciate hearing from you.

    • j on January 31, 2014 at 9:20 pm

      Hi, Eileen. I tried to respond to your email, but my reply bounced back “undeliverable.”

      • j on February 3, 2014 at 11:22 am

        FYI, I tried again. Nothing bounced back. It should be in your inbox (or maybe spam folder).

  2. Robin on February 1, 2014 at 6:16 am

    First. let me say Great Post!

    I think that we do need to recognize our imperfections and mistakes. If we take some time, they aren’t as difficult to find as you might think… since we are creatures of habit and there will be Patterns. Finding the commonality in the pattern may be the hardest part. Once we get there we can figure out what about ourselves is continually taking us to this place. Recognition is the first step. A decision to change and do better is next. And then we must forgive ourselves for being imperfect. All we can do is try and do better in the future. I think that is the evolution that you were talking about and I agree wholeheartedly.

    I love your first piece in the Monster Love series. And the girl’s hand is Perfect!!!

    • j on February 1, 2014 at 7:55 am

      I totally agree on your method of self-analysis, and even more with your last step in the process – self-forgiveness. I think the order you’re putting all that in matters. Self-forgiveness comes after we’ve done the work of understanding ourselves. I sometimes think the part where we actually learn and grow gets lost in the “we’re all perfect the way we are” message. Love your response.

      And… “Why thank you!” *waves away hand compliment like it’s no big deal while secretly glowing*

  3. Sue Maden on February 1, 2014 at 8:59 am

    Great post! I’m one of those who believe we are all perfectly imperfect. Or imperfectly perfect. Or, well, we’re all good just as we are. But…and it’s a big but (sorry, couldn’t resist), we often have opportunities for improvement. I learned this from my husband (don’t worry, he wasn’t telling me I needed to be fixed). In a past life (when he lived in England), his job was “continuous improvement facilitator.” I had never heard of that. And that job title is actually why we met as pen pals (another story). I thought, “I could use one of those!” His shorthand for opportunities for improvement is O4is. Now I’ll admit, I don’t always share his view. I don’t always look for and see the gaps. In fact, I recently told him I’d go crazy if I saw the world as he does…looking for what could be improved. But I do appreciate that about him. I’ve strayed here. And I get you’re talking about mistakes, and not just what could be better. But I think these are connected. And your post has me thinking about that. Thank you!

    • j on February 1, 2014 at 10:02 am

      I think you’re in the majority, at least in my world, believing in our perfect imperfections. I want to, but I’m not built that way. I think it’s sort of like being an introvert vs. an extravert, or being content vs restless… we have our natural inclinations. I have to agree with you though; it would be hard to look at the world noticing always what could be improved. Cool, but hard. Maybe in the same way that being very empathic is both cool and hard.

      Chad says I spend too much time in the “looking back/what can I learn from this” space, and not enough time in the “moving on, enjoy what’s happening right now” space. And I think he spends too much time in the latter.

      Maybe you and I are both with our perfect matches! 🙂

  4. Kristin Callender on February 1, 2014 at 9:07 am

    I love this, and not only because I often make mistakes. Your message really resonates with me in that I’m always trying to find balance with each change my life takes; accepting some things while always trying to improve on others. Great perspective! Thanks for sharing.

    • j on February 1, 2014 at 10:06 am

      That is the difficulty – knowing when to accept and when to change.

      For a long time I thought I needed to fight my own restless nature, learn how to be physically still so I could hear the inner murmurings I need to hear. But over the past couple of years, I’ve started to embrace my natural inclinations more. I find my core when I hike, for instance, or when I’m creating. I still meditate (for short periods at a time), but I also totally embrace the way movement gets me where I need to be, physically, spiritually, and metaphorically!

  5. Pam on February 1, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    I love the new pieces!

    I agree that while it’s vital to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes, it’s also rewarding to try to learn and grow from them.

    Recently I’ve been mulling over the topic of mistakes from a different angle. While working on restoring color to a piece I made long ago that has faded in its sunny spot on the wall, I got to thinking about the fear of screwing up and how, though I was aware of it there on the edge of my consciousness, I was going ahead and working anyway. This got me to thinking about how it can be so hard to get started on a project because the chances of screwing it up seem to be just about even with the chances of making something cool when you haven’t made a mark on the paper or canvas yet.

    I think if you practice at doing creative projects, you find your mental pathway toward starting things (and forging through on things) with the possibility (and reality) of mistakes. I think there’s a good reason that people connect being “in the zone” with “flow” –i.e. movement.

    Here’s to learning and growing and (best of all) being in the zone.

    • j on February 2, 2014 at 7:45 am

      Absolutely, the fear of making a mistake can be debilitating. And then sometimes once we get started, we’re afraid to experiment or stretch ourselves because we might “screw it up.” That mindset of being afraid to fail (or even to make a mistake) is a creativity killer for sure.

      How did your restoration turn out? I’ve never thought to do that, but I have a painting (not by me) where all but the blues and blacks disappeared. Might be fun to see if I can bring it back to life…

      • Pam on February 2, 2014 at 11:44 am

        Because my hand gets sore, I’m doing it little by little. The progress report might be stated as: I haven’t screwed it up yet. 😉

        • j on February 3, 2014 at 11:21 am

          Good for you for letting your hand fatigue be your guide! And I LOVE when my status on any art project is “I haven’t screwed it up yet.” 🙂

  6. Michele Hush on February 1, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    When you’re creating anything — from art to writing to carpentry — you have to push yourself beyond your usual boundaries to grow and learn. That means taking risks, and risks don’t always work out; in fact, sometimes the outcome is awful. But that’s okay — you were taking a risk. Risks in art (and most things) are experiments, and nobody dies. The whole idea is, you’re supposed to learn from the risks you take, however they work out. And that’s what is so true in what you wrote. You shouldn’t pat yourself on the back and say “Nice job!” when the chance you took ends badly. You’re supposed to say, “Okay. That didn’t work. What can I learn from this?” In other words, well said, J!

    • j on February 2, 2014 at 8:08 am

      I love this: “Risks in art (and most things) are experiments, and nobody dies.”

      You would never know that by my reaction to editor rejections of my (sometimes experimental) pieces, but you’re right of course. Nobody dies, and the world doesn’t end, and I learn something every time I experiment. (Often, what I learn is not to do THAT again.)

  7. June O'Reilly on February 2, 2014 at 7:04 am

    imperfectly perfect
    we are
    I truly believe
    every path
    takes me
    where I need to me

    I love your dragon
    and of course I only see
    your love and creativity flowing
    and as always thanks for sharing the
    struggle behind it

    • j on February 2, 2014 at 8:52 am

      It’s hard to argue with “imperfectly perfect” or “perfectly imperfect.” Each, to me, is an acceptance that we are imperfect and that we shouldn’t waste time trying to achieve perfection, which is, of course, impossible. And in the phrases, I personally hear something that appeals to me – the idea that it is our imperfections that make us interesting, which I believe to be true.

      That said, the “perfect just the way we are” message bothers me. Someone recently told me that being perfect and wanting to improve are not mutually exclusive, but I’d argue that, actually, linguistically, they are. Maybe I’m too literal?

      In any case, thank you for joining in the conversation, my friend. And as for my struggle, it is definitely, definitely, definitely a labor of love. 🙂

  8. Nancy on February 2, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    This is a provocative essay, darling J. I think there has to be a “sweet spot” in between perfectly imperfect and imperfectly perfect — a pause for reflection, for recognizing that we made a mistake, we didn’t die (nor did anyone else!), and that we deserve to love ourselves and our efforts, and we deserve to love ourselves into learning and making new mistakes. I think that can only happen if we can admit we screwed up – as you did when you though of the acrylic paint!

    Love you hugely,


    • j on February 3, 2014 at 10:47 am

      … “we deserve to love ourselves and our efforts, and we deserve to love ourselves into learning and making new mistakes.”

      YES YES YES! That is (as usual) beautifully said, and I agree completely. Going to hop down and respond to Julia a few comments down, but I think you are both getting at the same thing. How you approach yourself as you acknowledge and learn from your mistakes makes all the difference in the world. That’s what I meant when I said you can’t spend your evolutionary energy berating yourself, but you’ve said it better.

      And also, you make a point here that I don’t think I made very well (or at all) in my post, but I totally believe with all my heart: our efforts (whether we succeed or not) are worth praise and appreciation, at the very least (and most) from ourselves. I admit that I often skip that part. Focused as I am so often on analyzing my failures, I forget to congratulate myself for having leaped in the first place, because that’s big, and it’s easy to let our fears stop us from even trying (as Pam pointed out in her comment).

      Thank you for weighing in, my friend. I learn something every time you decide to play here. Love you back! xo

  9. Nancy on February 2, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    One more thing…..good thing I serendipitously found a beautiful Love Warrior so that I could learn that real change, healthy change, comes when we love ourselves into it. If I learn nothing else in this lifetime, this is a big enough lesson to cover this life and the next.

    • j on February 3, 2014 at 10:47 am


      • Nancy on February 3, 2014 at 11:28 am

        And one more thing…..after you and Julia get together and talk and talk over yummy beverages, hopefully the three of us can do it some day….i think we’re all birds of a feather. Hi Julia!

        • Julia on February 3, 2014 at 2:12 pm

          Nancy! Hi! Yes-how perfectly lovely that sounds. I’m so grateful to share feathers (and wings) with you two. Feeling especially blessed at the moment-you lovelies have made my day. Twirling you back, J.

          • j on February 3, 2014 at 7:16 pm

            You two, seriously… how lucky am I? <3

  10. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) on February 3, 2014 at 7:39 am

    I love love love the monster! I can’t even see the hand mistake; good job fixing that up! I can’t wait to see what other sorts of monsters you do. I’m with you on the concept of using mistakes to improve ourselves. I think, as with most things, there’s a happy balance between not beating ourselves up but not ever trying to improve. Nice post!

    • j on February 3, 2014 at 10:52 am

      i can’t see the hand mistake either, but when I made it and then tried to fix it, I showed the painting to Chad and he was (adorably) all over the map trying to tell me everything he liked before he mentioned the hand… which he reluctantly admitted warranted a do-over if I couldn’t figure out some other way to fix it. Thank goodness for midnight thoughts (sometimes)!

      And yes, there’s a balance. I get caught up in the language sometimes of our self-love culture. “We are perfect just as we are” gives me trouble. Sort of like “everything happens for a reason,” but let’s not get into that one. 🙂

  11. Karin on February 3, 2014 at 9:39 am

    I write in my journal long before I ever type it into the computer. My notebooks are full of scribbles, scratched out words, etc. I used to white out my mistakes, but that got to be quite the hassle (and it makes the pages stick). It’s the imperfections in the writing that remind me I’ve changed it from something simple to hopefully something more.

    And then this…

    “There are times in life when you fuck up, and you know you fucked up, and rather than accept your inevitable imperfection, what you need to do is spend some time getting to the bottom of yourself, analyzing what went wrong and figuring out what needs to change.”

    That’s probably my favorite statement (Other than art has no mistakes).
    It’s nice to embrace our imperfections, but wouldn’t it be better to find what went wrong, adapt and evolve into a better person? I’d like to think so.

    And I’ve said it once, but I’ll say it again: the machines are ado-robot-able, as are all of your artwork. 😀

    • j on February 3, 2014 at 11:02 am

      In the very occasional instances when I write poetry, I hand-write first too. And even on longer pieces, I will sometimes move back to my notebook when I’m stuck. There is something in the physical act of writing that pulls me closer to my work when I find myself too far adrift.

      And yes, no doubt there is a happy balance between the imperfections we embrace in ourselves, the ones we (reluctantly) accept, and the ones we attempt to rise up against… I definitely don’t always have the balance right, but I guess I’d rather err on the side of continual improvement, then err on the side of complacency.

      Thank you so much for your robot love. When I say ado-robot-able out loud, the melody of it makes me laugh. Leave it to a poet to come up with such a fun descriptor.

  12. julia on February 3, 2014 at 10:32 am

    Where to begin? First, your art, J, oh goodness – do I love it. It makes me happy and lightens the heavy. I love your love monsters.

    You always write such thought provoking posts. After I read you, I picture the 2 of us sitting together over some yummy beverage, talking and talking about all of it…some day maybe we will get to do this. I so agree that some mistakes are not embraceable. I think if we accept/embrace/honor that we aren’t perfect and never will or can be, and step forward to improve/evolve in our work from a place of self-love (rather than from a place of berating judgment), it’s much easier to move forward. I think the key is to move forward/work to expand our work/ourselves from a place of self-love…I find that if I’m trying to improve from that not-so-kind place, I become paralyzed and depressed. I have so much I want to say about all of this, too much for this little space.

    Anyway, thank you for always making me think – and smile.

    Deep bows to you, my brave friend.

    • j on February 3, 2014 at 11:20 am

      Someday we absolutely will sit and talk in person, Julia. It’s our destiny.

      Meanwhile, I agree about the importance of love in the evolutionary process. I’ve been paralyzed by the critic in my head too, and that’s the worst kind of block because it’s not just about your work, it’s about your sense of self. That’s where my painting story falls short of getting at the depth of this issue. The “not enough” mentality that freezes us up creatively can also isolate us from the world and, yes, lead to serious depression.

      But I do think the opposite problem can be just as dangerous for some people. When I hear people say, with seeming acceptance, “I always put myself last,” or “I don’t have time for creative projects,” or “I know I should eat better but I can’t resist [fill in unhealthy food here],” I always wonder if they believe what they’re saying is an unchangeable thing. If we accept in ourselves the “imperfections” that we really could, with effort (and yes, self-love) change, we risk a terrible sort of stagnation. And, even sometimes, a terrible cycle of self-loathing, since I don’t know anyone who truly accepts/embraces those imperfections, no matter what they say.

      It’s a balance, of course. And I think you’re right that self-love lies at the heart of the healthiest evolutions.

      *catches you mid bow and twirls you into a hug* xo

  13. Chris Edgar on February 9, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    Yes, that’s been a consistent theme with me, and not just with regard to activities that are usually thought of as “creative” — whenever I have an experience that, in the moment, seems mortifying (typically someone getting upset at me), usually I find that I’m somehow a more secure and fulfilled person a few days or weeks later.

    • j on February 10, 2014 at 5:29 pm

      That’s interesting, Chris. I assume you mean that you usually learn something from the bad experience. I have this set of daily meditations and for each one, there is a “grounding thought.” Today’s grounding thought was “a gift resides in every moment,” the point being that even if the hardest moments, there are opportunities for growth and transformation.

  14. Estrella Azul on February 16, 2014 at 1:44 am

    To start at the end, I love love love the card, and the little girl does have a very beautiful hand. Really, I can’t even tell which one of the two you’ve originally messed up!

    As for your beautifully written post, all I can say is, I agree. It all lies somewhere in the middle ground of embracing our mistakes, yet striving to be better. Neither of the two extremes would work out very well, would it?
    An example I can share from my recent experiences is, I have a new job since the middle of January. It’s not an easy one. And I’ve made mistakes. But even though someone looks over my work before it gets passed on and tells me where I’ve gone wrong, which part I didn’t quite understand, what I’d have to change, or rephrase, or add a new and clearer attachment to, I wouldn’t want to reply on that alone. I wouldn’t want to keep making mistakes. Because even though they’re minor in the big picture, I want to become better at it, up until the point where my Skype window lights up and I’ll get to read the very funny sentence (if taken out of context) “That’s a beautiful bug you submitted” and be proud of myself for not letting my previous mistakes go by unacknowledged and learned from.

    • j on February 16, 2014 at 7:51 am

      The extremes almost never work as ways of life, do they? Good luck in your new job!

  15. Estrella Azul on February 16, 2014 at 11:41 am

    No, they don’t. And I just noticed I wrote “reply” instead of “rely”, but I’ll embrace it, since I can’t fix it, and you’ve read it correctly already anyway 😉
    And thank you for the well wishes for my new job, it means a lot!

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