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.

 

Fear, Courage, and What Makes Your Writing Stand Out

My workshop at the Breathe Writers Conference was on rewriting and revision. I had so much I wanted to cover and not enough time to do it, thus I was forced to truncate my closing remarks. I’m sharing them here in full.

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Sometimes as we are revising, we run across something in our own writing that makes us uncomfortable. A bit of truth that slipped out when we weren’t watching. Maybe we let a character say something shockingly true. We read it later and are stunned that it came from within our minds and hearts. We think, “Maybe I shouldn’t say that, shouldn’t let my character say it.”

In the novel I’ve been working on this year, the overarching theme is the really the sovereignty of God—that everything that happens, including the tragic and awful, happens within His will and is part of His plan for our lives for a reason. That theme is played out in the stories of three women. Two of these storylines focus heavily on race, one during the Civil War, another during the Civil Rights era. In writing about the way white people in this country have viewed and treated black people over the decades, in writing about prejudice and lynching and rioting, and in writing about interracial relationships and marriage, I have had plenty of opportunities to censor myself. There have been many times I’ve thought, “People think this way, people say things like this—but will readers think that’s me? Will they think I think that way?” No one wants to be seen as racist.

And on the other hand, there was a powerful pull to remain politically correct, to treat black characters only as victims. Besides the fact that this is an incredibly demeaning label to put on an entire race, when you look at individual lives, not everyone in this world is a victim. (And victims often make the most uninteresting characters in fiction.) One of the climactic scenes is of the Detroit Riots of 1967. As a writer I could not escape from the fact that that scene included young black men destroying property, stealing, swearing, and even shooting at firemen who were trying to keep the neighborhood those same young men lived in from burning down. But a privileged white woman writing about poor, unemployed black men committing crimes? Is that allowed? Or can only African Americans comment on such an event? I was in high school and college during the 1990s, so I have to fight against near-constant “political correctness” indoctrination rearing its head, because all the PC movement ever did was bury issues under a veneer of civility where they continued to fester, ready to explode because they are never resolved.

In fact, in order say anything worth saying about the reality and experience of racism in the North, I had to avoid both extremes of piling on the white guilt and portraying black characters as victims. That’s been done to death. And in between those two extremes is where we find truth—and truth is never without tension. There’s a lot of fear in writing about explosive topics like race, war, the sanctity of human life, the sacredness of the union of husband and wife. And yet those explosive topics are important. And if we censor ourselves in the public square or the intellectual square, we allow others to set the trajectory of our culture.

In revision, sometimes the things that you feel most strongly that you should delete are the things you should keep. When you feel you should censor yourself because of what a reader (often a very specific one, like your mother or spouse or a friend) might think of you, that’s when you should stop, take a deep breath, and move on. Leave that bit in there. That’s what makes your writing interesting, original, individual, and worth keeping. Deep down, we know that the things that frighten us a little or surprise us—those are the things that actually are saying something. The moments we allow ourselves to really say what we mean—those are the things that really need to be said.

Betsy Lerner, in her excellent book The Forest for the Trees, said it this way:

“If you dream of having your work stay alive beyond your tenure on earth, if you hope to see it beside the unforgettable voices that are part of our literary diaspora, then you must be fearless in every aspect of your writing. . . . Most important, give up the vain hope that people will like your work. People like vanilla ice cream. Hope that they love your work or hate it. That they find it exquisite or revolting…‘Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like and cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.’ Throw off the shackles of approval. . . . if your book causes a commotion, even the negative kind, you will have made a platform for yourself, something very few writers ever attain. . . . You cannot censor yourself; successful writing never comes through half measures.”

Yes, if you run across a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter that you realize just doesn’t do anything, chop it out of there! It’s dead weight! But if you feel the pull to remove something because it’s uncomfortable or you fear the criticism of others, and yet that part of your work does further your story and does give your reader deeper insight into a character—or into the human condition—be brave. Keep it. Leave it in. That’s the thing that readers will remember. That’s the thing that will make readers sit up straight and listen—because you are someone with something important to say.

Don’t edit out of fear. Don’t edit to protect yourself. Edit to make that shocking truth, that encapsulation of reality hit home even harder. Edit to make that meaning crystal clear.

Because things that need to be said are often those things we wish to hide–about ourselves, about others, about our glorious, messed-up world.

Trailblazing and the Seductive Pull of the Status Quo

Snail

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, we encounter two opposite impulses embodied in Laura’s parents. Pa is a restless wanderer moving his family ever west in search of more space, more freedom, and complete self-reliance. Ma is obedient to her husband’s wishes, but her heart is still back in New England where her family remains. Just when the family settles in one place and the land is tamed and things are beginning to work smoothly, just when Ma’s workload gets a little lighter because the house is built, the barn is secure, and the vegetable garden is established, Pa announces the family is leaving that all behind and heading back out on the trail to chase the horizon.

As Americans, we admire Pa and leave Ma to fret about Indian attacks and the children’s education. Or we pretend we do. Or we do while we’re yet young and unattached. But when we have established homes and jobs and families of our own, the pull of the horizon must war with the pull of the earth beneath our feet. We begin to see the sense in staying where we are. We begin to see all that open land not as welcoming us but as waiting to destroy us.

So we stay in jobs we dislike for 30 years in order to feed and clothe our families and keep our health insurance (well, maybe not that anymore…). It would be a different thing, we say, if we were single or childless. We take the path of least resistance and claim that it must be God’s will for our lives because we encounter no obstacles (if that’s your view, go check out 1 Corinthians 16:9 and note the word and). We keep plodding through and put out of mind that there may be something else for us.

Is there something you have been putting off for fear that your life will be disrupted? Or that you may fail? The Ingalls family never quite made it to where Pa wanted to go. I’m not sure even reaching the Pacific Ocean would have quelled his wanderlust. In fact, they had to turn back east and retreat for a time. But that never seemed to stop Pa. And though they encountered hardship most of us can’t imagine nowadays, they also experienced the pride of being trailblazers.

It’s hard to balance contentment with one’s circumstances and the drive to get that dream job or live in that dream city or pursue that dream degree. The status quo is so comfortable, so cozy, so easy. Why would we want to mess with that?

Still, if you have gifts and you aren’t using them or you’re not using them to the extent you believe you should, maybe it’s time to venture out of your shell and take the plunge into the unknown. If an opportunity presents itself to you and your first instinct is to retreat into your shell and wait for it to go away, maybe it’s time to be brave and take on the challenge.

There will be obstacles. There will be long winters, rushing rivers, millions of grasshoppers, prairie fires and chimney fires, people who resent you, and family that doesn’t quite understand. There will be hard work and hard weather. But there will also be satisfaction and joy and adventure.

Case in point: I have submitted a few of my short stories this year to a number of contests and gotten a number of emails that include the words, “We’re sorry, but…” And yet, last night I got an email from one of those contests that told me I am a finalist! And that email was from The Saturday Evening Post. Even if I don’t win, I still got that far, I may end up in their anthology, I now have contact with the editor there who likes my work, and I can add this information to my bio as I query other magazines, editors, or agents.

But if I hadn’t taken the plunge and risked lots of rejection, I could never have gotten this far.

Is opportunity knocking? Why not crack the door and at least give it a chance to talk.

Overcoming the Fear of Inadequacy

This is a picture of my son.

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It is a self portrait made back in March when he was still four years old, sent home in his personal file when he left his daycare/preschool and started kindergarten. Being four, this is as skilled as his self-portrait could be, even though I know he really sees himself more like this:

Do you ever feel like your talent may not live up to your own expectations?

Does that fear keep you from trying something great?

In almost any creative endeavor, we have an idea of what we want the end result of our efforts to be. The knowledge that our labors–our writing or painting or sculpting or songwriting or drawing in crayon–may never quite live up to the perfect standards we have in our heads can keep us from trying. One can feel paralyzed by potential.

But one must still write. One must still create.

My son may not be a real ninja turtle, but he is taking karate lessons.

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If you don’t try, you can’t fail. But if you don’t try, you can’t succeed either.

You’ve got to start somewhere.