September 30, 2014KR BlogBlogWriting

On Being Wrong

In 2010 I published an essay about the horns at the tops of unicorns heads. I was very proud of this essay, and very excited when a literary magazine I respected quite a bit decided to pick it up. “On Alticorns,” I called it, a reference to the horn that, I hoped, recalled both the Montaigne-esque and a visual image of someone sitting on a pointed unicorn horn. I was very pleased with myself.

At the time, the essay felt like a huge success. It had been well-received in my graduate workshop, then further well-received in editing sessions with my various thesis advisors. The Best American Essays series decided to list it as “notable,” and a few blogs even chose to mention it favorably. A little while later, a Wikipedia article cited it to prove some fairly minor point about a school of occult magic. In fact, you can today go into a major research library, log in to the database of their holdings, type in “Alticorns,” and more than likely my essay will come up.

For months, this was the reality I existed in. I sometimes googled myself to see these indications of minor success, digitally patting myself on the back. Slowly, however, it occurred to me how odd it was, that I was the only result for this search. That there weren’t a few more people sounding off on those mythical horns. Could it be possible that no one else cared enough about unicorn horns to track down their proper taxonomic name?

Of course not, that would be ridiculous, people really love unicorns. What did turn out to be possible, however, was that I had misspelled the word that my essay was about. Alicorn. The horn atop a unicorn’s head is called an alicorn. No “t,” just alicorn. Which I must have known at some point—the essay itself is filled with research into this horn, research I conducted over many hours and repeated trips to libraries, typing in “alicorn” to find relevant information, reading articles that referenced alicorns, that sort of thing. In fact, if you google “alicorn” you receive around 632,00 responses, some of which I waded through at the time. If you google “alticorn,” however, you receive under 4,000 responses: a bunch of nonsense, my essay, references to my essay, and a god damn twitter account I made with the username “alticorn.” There is also a Facebook fan page for the object that somehow made the same mistake I did, and which tracks higher than my essay.

For a long time, this filled me with horror. I imagined the two times I read the essay in public, saying the false word sixteen times at each reading. I thought back to the night at the bar after my workshop, when I drank whiskey and went on and on and on about something called an alticorn. I strategized: if anyone ever catches this mistake, I’ll just say it’s an antiquated spelling, no one will bother to do the research to prove me wrong! When I changed my publishing name I thought, well, at least it won’t be so easy to connect me to that mistake, thank god.

When discussions about truth in nonfiction writing come up, this is regularly in the back of my head. The details and facts that texture the essay and form the basis of my thinking, my exploration of innocence that I tie back to the horn—I don’t accept that they are any bit diminished because of a freakishly blatant typo. My brief analysis of Damien Hirst would certainly be no more or less revealing were I to go back and delete that one little letter. Yet the premise of my thinking, my claim on authority, must seem a bit shaky to anyone who, well, knows what the hell I’m talking about.

The fact is, I’m wrong a lot. Like, all the time. Last week I was walking the five blocks home from the coffee shop I go to every morning and I managed to take a wrong turn. Being wrong is a regular part of my life, as it is likely a part of yours. And as a literary essay writer, I am often as not trafficking in subjects about which I am less than an expert, just a curious fan, all of which heightens the opportunity for these mistakes. It’s a bit of a weird position, to spend your days rendering knowledge when your expertise must lie in the rendering, not in the facts. And there really is no excuse for such sloppy mistakes, especially not when your readers have chosen to follow you along in your thinking despite your lack of credentials. Which is why finally, when my ego relaxed and I could see my mistake with humor rather than horror, I insisted to myself that my research, from then on, must be flawless and careful if it were to properly serve my imagination. I wrote a note, which I post wherever I am writing, to remind me that this is one of the many contracts of the essay. “Measure twice, cut once.”

And then, last week, I returned to something I had recently published, to the kind of sentence that you spend all afternoon hammering out until you have crafted it the best you can. I read its rhythm, its subtle meanings, and I read it’s stunningly blatant factual inaccuracy, as prominent as an alticorn on a unicorn’s gleaming head.