Some people keep their skeletons in the closet. I keep mine in a box under the bed.
I actually mean it: I literally have a box under my bed filled with my mistakes. I keep college papers I did poorly on, ribbons from horse shows where I placed under third, love letters and trinkets from my exes, and creative projects I deemed failures. I even keep photos where I feel I modeled poorly.
I kept all these things because I was convinced I could learn from them. After all, everybody says that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. I was determined to take that lesson to heart, so I gathered together everything I could possibly call a mistake. I thought that if I did that, I’d never make the same mistakes again.
It turns out that’s a terrible reason to keep anything around. Instead of learning from these things I considered mistakes, I just felt guilty every time I looked at them. Seeing them all piled up in one place made me feel like a failure, too.
So after years of holding onto all of them (and feeling guilty every time I looked under the bed), I decided to clean out the box and throw everything away.
But despite the guilt and negative feelings, I’m glad that I ended up keeping all of those “failures” for as long as I did. Because when I opened up my box of mistakes to clear it out, I didn’t find failures. I found gems.
The image for this blog is one that I kept in my box. The photographer did an absolutely wonderful job with it. I, however, thought I did horribly as a model. I looked at it and saw half a dozen different things I wanted to change about my pose and facial expression, so I filed it away for further study and vowed to never make those mistakes again.
That image is currently a finalist in a photo competition. Other people are appreciating it—and I am too, now that I’ve given it a second look. I’ve found that I actually really like the photo. It turns out that a piece of my art I had written off prematurely had a lot of value.
And it’s not just this one photo. I found images, story excerpts, and even composition notes that were all worth saving. I learned through the process of going through my box that I was often hasty in calling something a mistake. I realized an artistic failure just means it doesn’t currently emotionally resonate with me. If I come back to it in a different frame of mind, it might not be a failure at all.
Granted, not everything in the box was worth saving as-is. Some of it really was terrible. But even then, there was usually something about it worth repurposing or reimagining. I’ve pillaged my writing, pose ideas, love letters, and even college essays to make more art. I think of it like making a collage: I tear up all the things I don’t like into little bits, and then rearrange them into something new.
I’m now convinced that sometimes failures are the best material when it comes to making art. So I ended up keeping everything in that box; I didn’t clean it out and throw it away. I just stopped feeling guilty about keeping my mistakes.