Who’s Afraid of Imperfection?

Yesterday I took up my journal for the first time in six weeks. Before writing anything new, I read the last entry from March 14th, which began with the question What am I building? 

The majority of that entry asked such questions — Will I ever stop yearning? For what?…Is it resolution? That stories have them but life does not?…Am I too aware of my own insignificance?…Is it simply March, that horrifying month of zero beauty?…Am I always to be utterly mediocre?

At points, it felt psalmic — Where are my friends? Who can understand?

Finally, I managed to get to the crux of the matter — I so often feel bound, stifled, tied by good manners and good decisions and doing things the right way…Can such a life ever lead to great art?

I read that yesterday and thought, Wow…I don’t remember feeling like that. In fact, things have been going pretty well this year…well, other than the weather…and the writing.

The weather is out of my control, and Michiganders are allowed a certain measure of existential angst in March (and this year well into April). But the writing? That’s all me, right?

The truth is, I’ve been struggling to write since last summer. I’ve flitted from project to project, never landing solidly on one. I’ve been anxious about the “wasted” time for about six months. Six months! I should have a new book drafted by now! Instead, I have two chapters each of two novels, ten pages each of two screenplays, half of a TV pilot, and one and a half poems. Oh, and a half-finished painting.

I’m not blocked. I have plenty of new ideas. Too many. What I’ve lacked is time and discipline and follow-through.

I have to allow that October through February were crazy, hectic days in our home (see my last blog post for why). It was pretty exhausting. And when you’re doing that kind of work, you’re going to need time to just decompress with TV, movies, and books. Which I did.

But now all that’s over and, other than the spring garden clean-up, I don’t have so many demands on my time. So why am I still struggling with the art?

Perhaps it comes down to expectations. I expect a lot of myself. I always have. Now that a wider audience is going to experience my work, I expect even more. I’ve begun a new round of self-criticism, brought on by doing the edits on We Hope for Better Things. The edits themselves were not bad. But I’ve begun to second guess some of them. Should I have rearranged that chapter that way? Should I have dropped that line? 

As I ask established authors to endorse the book I wonder, Will they read it and be unimpressed but feel they have to say something nice anyway?

As we work through cover designs, trying to get it just right and trying to get everyone involved on board…So. Much. Angst.

And that uncertainty makes its way to the new projects I’m trying to focus on. Because I don’t want them to simply be good; I want them to be better than what I’ve done before. I know, intellectually, that they won’t be perfect. But that knowledge doesn’t stop me from wanting them to be perfect.

Yet, perfectionism is the enemy of art. Back to that journal entry. Can a life of good manners and good decisions and always striving to do things the “right way” lead to great art?

My husband is turning 40 next month. I just turned 38. We are prime targets for some mid-life-crisis-level self-examination. What have we done with our lives thus far? How much time is left? Where haven’t we been (most places) that we long to go? Are we letting time slip by, unnoticed, while we are busy with what must be done in the day-to-day? Is the time for this or that just…gone?

Neither of us had a wild, rebellious phase. Neither of us took a year to hike through Europe and “have experiences.” We have done the school, job, house, family thing, and neither of us would ever give that up. But, as I have since I was a happy child, I do find myself worrying every once in a while…does such a measured and comfortable life lead to great art?

This morning I read a post on The Art of Simple called When the Art You Create Disappoints You. In it, writer Shawn Smucker tells about how his daughter wanted to paint a very particular scene that she had in her head. She worked on the painting all day. And then, when it didn’t turn out how she’d wanted it to, she painted over it. I have done this. Probably we’ve all done something similar with something we were trying to create. We have a vision of what it can be. We haven’t the skill to pull it off perfectly. And so rather than let this imperfect creation live, we hide it or destroy it.

There is a book I have been planning and researching and imagining for years now that I haven’t had the courage to start because I fear I don’t know enough or will not have the skill needed to pull it off. It’s not one of the several projects I have started and then left hanging since last summer. It exists in no form at all, not even an embryonic outline. Because it doesn’t exist, it can be perfect. The moment I begin to put it to paper, it will fall short of my expectations.

Done right, it could be magnificent. Done wrong, it could be a source of deep embarrassment.

I recently watched an episode of Raiders of the Lost Art that told the story of the theft and recovery of the Mona Lisa in 1911 and 1913, respectively. During the episode I learned something about Leonardo DaVinci I might have intuited, knowing what I know about the breadth of his creativity and the very different and innovative things he designed, from flying machines to war machines. The documentary makers mentioned how experimental DaVinci was and how that makes it difficult to identify newly found works that are purported to be his. One such recent find was La Bella Principessa, which was painted on vellum, a medium he was not known to have painted on.

They also discussed a huge fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, which may be hiding behind a later painting in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. It was a technical disaster. DaVinci had been trying out a new technique (on an enormous scale) that simply didn’t work. His paint was not adhering to the wet plaster beneath it. He set up large urns with fires burning in them in order to dry the paint, but instead of drying it the heat caused the paint and plaster to run down the wall. This was a master, commissioned to do a large and important work, and it failed.

One might argue that DaVinci should have stuck with the techniques he knew would work. He should have done it the “right way,” especially with the stakes so high. But was apparently more interested in experimentation, in keeping things fresh and trying out new ideas, than he was in succeeding by way of routine. And actually, by some standards he failed much more than he succeeded, as these two very short films show.

Imperfection takes far more courage than perfection. If perfectionism keeps us from creating anything at all because what if it doesn’t turn out perfect, that takes no courage at all. That’s just following fear where it naturally leads — to immobility, to stasis. But to create despite knowing full well your creation will be flawed? That takes courage.

My journal entry from March 14th may have been affected by the weather. Heck, it may have been hormonal. But at its core, I think it was voicing my frustration with myself for my own stasis when it comes to writing. Before there was the prospect of publication and reviews (and bad reviews) I could write anything without fear. Because if it didn’t work, who would know but me? But now I think I have subconsciously been letting concerns about audience and reception stifle my experimental streak.

Maybe I need a little less caution in my life. Maybe I need to reach back in time to an Erin that existed before responsibility, an Erin who never worried and never counted the cost when it came to creative expression. An Erin who dove in headfirst and figured things out as she went.

You may be wondering about the odd collection of pictures in this post. These are that Erin’s art, when she didn’t know what the hell she was doing. They’re technically immature, often derivative, and parts of them may even have been traced. But that Erin was happy with them in a way today’s Erin is never happy with her own work, whether it be drawings, paintings, poems, or stories. That Erin was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.

And somewhere inside Erin Version 38, that fearless Erin still lives.

 

Sunset on Grand Sable Dunes and Waiting for the Northern Lights

After we visited Log Slide on Friday, Alison and I returned to our campsite, had a bite to eat, and then returned to the other world waiting above us to watch the sunset.

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Apparently, we were not the only ones with this idea. We were joined by about 63 million tiny flying bugs of the gnat variety, which frantically whizzed about in clouds all around us. You can spot some of them in the photo above.

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And yet, it was still quiet and peaceful up there. I set off to photograph the dunes in the waning light while Alison plunked down with a book. You can see her in the above photo, way up near the top of the hill.

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The sun slowly sank lower in the sky and lit up the dune grasses and sand in that perfect evening light that photographers so adore.

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And a landscape that had seemed almost stark in the harsh midday sun took on a quality that made you feel that this earth is really a beautiful place indeed.

How often do we go to bed at night having not noticed this? It should strike us daily and yet we are so busy and so insulated from the earth outside and spend so little time with the real world that we miss it regularly.

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Certainly that feeling is easy to come by in a singular landscape such as Grand Sable Dunes. But even your own yard or neighborhood or that corner of your kitchen where the light hits just so, you can see it. If you’re looking.

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Now, I have never been a fan of August. It has always seemed a wasted month of horrid heat, humidity, and boredom. But I’ve recently begun rethinking my stance.

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This past weekend it started to cast a spell over me. (More on this at a later date.)

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Finally, finally, the sun sank below the horizon. My sister headed down the now dark trail, flashlight in hand, leaving me atop the highest point of the dunes, camera firmly affixed to my tripod, to wait for a very different sort of light. I had read on Tuesday that a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) had occurred. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, essentially the sun had released a tremendous amount of energy that was careening through space toward us, the effects of which might be visible on this Friday night.

Still in the dark? I’m talking about the Northern Lights, which for the past few years of increased CME activity (which goes in 11 year cycles) have been spotted all over Michigan, but mostly on Lake Superior. And here I was at Lake Superior on the perfect night in the perfect spot to see them for the first time in my life and, if I was lucky, capture them in pixels so I could smugly share my good fortune with others.

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As the cold wind whipped around me and my surroundings darkened, I actually prayed for the privilege to witness this incredible display of the power of our star and the kind hand of the One who put our planet in such a position that I could both see it and not be harmed by it.

But it was not to be. There may have been lights later that night while I was snoozing or watching a little mouse scurry overhead between the tent and the rain fly, but I was not permitted to see them. I eventually packed up my camera and flicked on my flashlight for the descent to Masse Homestead (made exponentially more difficult by the darkness and more nerve-wracking by the thought that should I encounter a black bear or wolf in the pitch black night, it would have a significant advantage over me despite my being armed).

I was (and am) profoundly disappointed. And yet, the sun continues to shine and produce storms that will cause the Northern Lights to appear at a later date. Someday I hope to see them. In the meantime, this disappointment reminds me that I am not owed beauty. Beauty happens, but it doesn’t happen for my sake. I am like one of those grains of sand on the dune, one of billions of people in the world. My great comfort is that God knows every speck of sand, every one of us, and that He heard my prayer for light that night…and for whatever reason His answer was “Not just yet.”