Tuesday, March 16, 2010

In Praise Of Cluelessness

I have a confession: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

Now, I get it that lots of people say they don’t know what they’re doing as they’re skillfully making detailed five-year plans and executing them to perfection, but I’m not kidding. I’m just winging it and hoping for the best. I do things that I shouldn't and I've shot myself in the foot, and have had plenty of steps backwards for every step forward. I've worked wildly, organically and without much planning.

And you know what? I’m glad I’m clueless. Cluelessness has come in handy. Because with the amount of mistakes I’ve made (and I’m talkin’ huge, ginormous gaffes) I now have a nice, detailed list of what NOT to do, which helps, in part, to determine what I should do.

And to illustrate my point, I, Kelly Barnhill, am going to come clean. I’m going to tell the world – and when I say world, I mean you, dear internets – about the lame, silly, bone headed and just plain ignorant things I have done since I first decided to start writing in earnest, six years ago.


  1. I once sent unproofed short stories (notice how I just said once. Honesty, Kelly. We’re being honest. Fine. Three times) to the fiction editor at The Atlantic ……on purpose. I had some kind of theory that the unproofed script was closer to soul of the artist or some such bollocks. Needless to say the stories were rejected. To his credit, dear Mr. Curtis sent unpersonalized rejection slips and not what I richly deserved: a hand written note telling me to stop being so damn unprofessional.
  2. I, alas, more than once, sent over a short story, misspelling the editor’s name in the salutation. I actually did this recently with an editor who had already bought another one of my stories. Obviously, I smacked my head upon the desk again and again and again.
  3. On three separate occasions, I sent stories with cover letters in which I tried to B.S. the editor into thinking that I actually read the publication in question. Once, the editor actually wrote back totally busting me. I shall never live down the shame. I will also never live down the shame of not possessing a deep understanding of every market I submit to – the lesson that really pushed me towards actually producing readable short stories. I now read short fiction obsessively, and my brain is better for it.
  4. On at least eight separate occasions, I sent query letters to agents with the wrong agent’s name in the salutation. I know this happens all the time, but it filled me with such shame, I nearly stopped writing forever. On behalf of clueless writers everywhere, dear agents, I apologize. I really do. You people deserve better.
  5. I once sent a single story to not one, but two publications that don’t accept simultaneous submissions, and then was placed in the very uncomfortable position of explaining to one of them why they couldn’t have my story. Obviously, after that experience, I will never again repeat the mistake.

There are more, but given the repetition of the number 5 on this blog, I’ll limit my self-immolation. I will say this though – there is a magnificent power in cluelessness. I think I benefited from my own lack of foresight and professional skills because I didn’t know to be afraid. I didn’t know to be careful. I was able to be brash, and bold and to try out markets that I had no hope of breaking and query above my station and contact editors who normally would not have ever seen my stuff. Because by doing just that, I sold my first short story for the equivalent of two months rent, and I sweet-talked a small children’s publisher to take a chance on an untested writer for a series of nonfiction titles, and I convinced a magazine editor to allow me to write some articles, despite my obvious lack of magazine experience. By being a total and complete clue, sure, I embarrassed myself, but I did things then that I’d hesitate to do now, and by taking action and by acting with freedom and wild abandon, I built the foundations of my career. And despite the red cheeks and the occasional facepalm, I don’t regret it.

Be clueless, people. Be naïve. Don’t be afraid to screw up. You will screw up – we all do. Try anyway. And someday, we’ll meet for beers somewhere and we’ll toast to our shared mistakes. I’ll be looking forward to it.


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