Thursday, December 13, 2007

On Perfectionism

It's only been in the last few years that I've admitted to being a writer out loud (and just typing that makes me cringe a little).

Most importantly, only recently that have I been actually writing. The books I read as a child were so important, and even holy, to me that I got it in my head that the people that wrote them must be kind of like mini-gods.

Writers, I thought, must be incredibly wise and talented people who effortlessly churned out graceful prose whenever they felt like it. Probably while ensconced in important, echo-y, whisper-quiet rooms. Much like those you might see in a grand old library or a castle or possibly St. Patrick's Cathedral.

I learned differently as I grew up, of course, but still. I had the idea that, to twist a phrase from F. Scott Fitzgerald,

"Writers are different from you and me."

But I've found through the years that the truth is, to twist the alleged response of the earthy Ernest Hemingway,

"Yah. They write more words."

While I haven't thought of myself as a writer until recently, someone else has. And, perhaps not surprisingly, that someone is my mother. She has been telling me as much since I was in my twenties,

"You're a writer, Bizzy. You just don't know it!"

And boy did I not know it. I REALLY didn't know it back in those days. When she would say that, I would feel a little sorry for her.

Poor Mom. I'd think. She's SO out of touch.

But of course she wasn't, not really.

And in these last few years when I myself have actually started to write more words, and bounce ideas and observations off my talented published writer mother, and other writerly types, it's been a revelation. A revelation about the similarities, and especially the difficulties, we all face in the creative process.

And they are legion.

To my mind, though, the most difficult obstacle of all the wild, whacked out reasons why I (and many others) don't create is the demon Perfectionism. It's never good enough. It's never "just right". In fact it's bad. Embarrassingly so! Good lord, it's AWFUL. Terrible, humiliatingly bad, bad stuff.

Perfectionism, in fact, is what kept me paralyzed from just going on and writing words for so long. It whispered to me that nothing I could possibly do would be good enough. It told me I would never, ever rise to the level of Writer. It re-read the stuff I did write and screeched, "What were you THINKING? This is horrendous!"

Occasionally, I would write something that, even to my critical mind, was sort of okay. Actually, kind of not bad. And at those times? The demon would be meanest of all. He would say, "Yah, okay, so it's bearable. But it's NOT. GOOD. ENOUGH. (And it never will be)."

There are several reasons why I'm able to write my words now despite the demon. Mostly the secret is to just go on and do it, I think. Write, revise, maybe revise again and then? Well, it is what it is. No, it's not Alcott or Bronte or Shakespeare, but I like it and maybe someone else will too.

This morning I re-read what Anne Lamott has to say about perfectionism:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.

I hope you're not looking at your feet.

But if you are? Take it from one who knows. It's never too late to stop.


William F. Renzulli said...

Writing is an art, and like all art, it chooses you, you don't choose it! And, apparently, it HAS chosen you. I think your writing is remarkable, it holds my attention, which is no simple task given my impatience.

If you have not done so, please read Rilke's Letters to a yong Poet. I think it should be every artist's bible.

Brenda said...

GREAT post!

Monica said...

Bill is reading my mind. It is an art. Thanks for having the courage to share that part of yourself.

ChristaD said...

Even the letters you wrote me in your early twenties were great stuff. If I may say, in addition to the words, it's that attention to detail that makes good writing great...shining the spotlight on the mundane and often insane parts of our lives. BTW, I am no longer able to comment from work since they've decided to put another layer of lockdown on us.

Suzanne said...

Thanks, you all, so much for the encouragement! It means the world.

Bill, you are soooo right, it does choose you. Sometimes it's hard to discern if it's a gift or a disease. A little of both?

I have splurged on the Rilke as an early xmas present to myself. Thank you for the recommend, it looks wonderful. I'm so honored you enjoy my writing!

Mary Thorsby said...

tBizzyville ROCKS! Anne Lamott is one of my favorite writers. Her Bird by Bird is a wonderfully inspiring book for anyone interested in writing. I often turn to it when I get stuck. Great post! xoxoxomt

Tim said...

Beautiful post! Thank you for sharing that.

Patience-please said...

Bill has a Rilke library if you want more. You write beautifully and are a HUGE talent. But it makes me feel better that you've doubted yourself, because that is my world.
And I haven't read Anne Lamott, so I'll have to go order me a little present.

Suzanne said...

Patience--Please be sure you get "Bird by Bird: Thoughts on Writing and Life" by Lamott! It is totally inspirational for us crazy writers (she is just as crazy)!! That is the book the quote came from.

Suz said...

Thank you for posting this.

It's perfect. :-) Better than perfect, it's very good!

And helpful. As have been the comments.

Write on!