Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint...They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else's experience or write somebody else's poems.I recently wrote about how mistakes are part of the learning experience. We may on the one hand learn one less way to do something, and on the other hand we may encounter some other creative path entirely that we didn't see before.
The example that I gave was karate, where a mistake was once described as "being creative."
The thing about karate, however, is that students tend to do things in line, where if you're not immediately in front, you have a chance to observe what others are doing.
For that reason, a common saying in my dojo is "make your own mistakes." In other words, if you just follow what the person in front of you is doing, you'll also end up imitating every mistake that they make. Better to do things the best way you remember or know and be corrected for the ways you may need to improve, rather than just trying to be somebody else.
This, I think, is the same idea that Merton is working with above. So many writers, artists, musicians, speakers, leaders, pastors, and others think that they need to walk lock-step in line with what somebody else has done or is doing. They feel the need to make the same decisions, work the same style, follow the same path, when those decisions, styles, and paths are to be learned from, but not emulated.
(A lot of the Church Growth Industry, for instance, is based on encouraging the emulation of successful people and models. To the detriment of local context, need, and preference.)
Creator Austin Kleon explores this from a different angle. He writes:
When I was in middle school, my English teacher, Mrs. Neff, had us keep composition books, and sometimes she gave us a prompt to answer, but sometimes she simply wrote a poem on the board for us to copy. She never made it explicit exactly what we were supposed to be learning by copying, but now I know. We were absorbing the poem. (I still do this regularly in my notebook.)At first, we learn by copying. But even then, we can learn more about our own style. This may come from differentiating between what we really like about another artist, poet, devotee, or whoever, and what we'd prefer to do differently. It may also come from the mistakes we make while copying--our own, not repeating theirs--that may further help us discover ourselves.
Eventually you can’t help but move from copying into something of your own. My 5-year-old is already figuring this out: A few months ago he started recreating Kraftwerk songs in Garageband, but his versions always had something new and interesting in them. It was his inability to perfectly replicate the song that made something interesting happen.
All kinds of mistakes and problems become exponentially bigger when we're just following the people in front of us. This may include learning a technique wrong or foregoing our own critical thought to perpetuate what another has done. This may also include much bigger systemic issues where everyone just goes along with accepted norms, to the harm or detriment of others. And this may also include forging off on your own, doing what everyone else thinks is a mistake but is really the morally or technically right thing.
Our own style includes our own mistakes. But risking the former to discover the latter is what we're meant to do.