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.

 

Upon Finding Old Pages Ripped Out of a Journal

Last month I cleaned out one of our attics (bizarrely, our small house comes equipped with two of them) in an attempt to rid our home of stuff we really didn’t want, organize the stuff we wanted to keep, and make room for a number of items I’ve been steadily packing away in anticipation of listing our house for sale in the coming year. While going through boxes, I found, among other things, lots of old photographs, sketches and paintings, trophies and plaques, letters and notes passed and mailed between my husband and I when we were dating in high school and college, and all the cards and notes of advice from my bridal showers.

I kept out a few things to scan and share when time allows (apparently I was the most prolific and derivative fourteen-year-old artist to have ever lived). The rest I tucked away to await eventual moving trucks.

Then when Zach was in the other attic getting all the Christmas decorations down, he found twelve pages, written on both the front and back, I had removed from one of my many early attempts at journaling. Because I know myself, I am positive that at one point I found a journal that I’d started, but most of it was blank, so I tore out the written pages, kept them aside, and then used the rest of the journal, either making a new attempt to start an actual journal about my boring life or else, if it was found more recently, making notes in it for future writing projects (which is the only way I have ever filled up a journal).

The pages start in June 1998, the summer after my senior year of high school, when I moved up to Camp Lake Louise (then Lake Louise Baptist Camp) to work as resident staff for the summer. They are certainly not daily. They say nothing of camp life at all. They do record Zach’s proposal to me (in epic poem form, no less) and me settling into college at Grand Valley State University. Over half the pages are me dramatically recounting an incident and a misunderstanding with Zach, waiting at Afterwards, the GVSU coffee shop, and lamenting that he wasn’t showing up (remember, kids, that texting didn’t exist and most of us didn’t have cell phones anyway) and I had brought nothing to read beyond John Donne (can you tell what sort of a person I was in college?). This extended, maudlin discourse goes on for pages and pages and is postscripted with one line I penned the next day; turns out he had to work that night and that’s why he never met me at the coffee shop (disaster averted). The last page is my first and only attempt (thus far) at writing song lyrics.

Of all of these things, the only one I remember writing was the song. I have no memory of any of the rest of it, and I would never have remembered how emotional or lonely I felt waiting in that coffee shop after having that misunderstanding with Zach. After I read the pages I had him read them. He didn’t remember any of it either, but we had a good laugh about it and enjoyed all of my overly poetic turns of phrase (college freshmen can be sophomoric too).

Now, you may be thinking that the right thing to do would be to share some specifics of the embarrassing and dramatic content of these pages with you. Maybe post the lyrics or the poem here for you to chuckle at. To be self-deprecating and transparent.

Pffft.

No.

This is why in the past people burned their papers before they died — to avoid others finding such personal stuff once they’re gone. Now every dumb thing anyone ever said is archived forever on some server somewhere and future generations will have a too-real view of all of us. Hoping people will remember you as someone endowed with dignity and mystique? Don’t count on it.

There are competing views about offering a backstage glimpse into the life of a writer. Recently I’ve read calls for writers to be open about how they learned, where they failed, and how they found success. It’s better for aspiring writers, is the argument. It demystifies writing, removes the idea of “talent,” and is more honest about all the sweat and hard work. But then you’ve got someone like Ernest Hemingway who says, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

Myself? I’m not sure where I fall on the transparency spectrum just yet. When you look at an entire body of work from one writer you should see growth (the alternatives — plateauing or declining — certainly don’t seem desirable). But what I know for sure is that anything I wrote in high school or college should probably be burned or buried with me.

Everyone Is Reading Your Diary: Why Facebook and Twitter Shouldn’t Be Your Journal

Remember journaling? It’s what a number of people used to do to record and work through their random, inane, deep, inflammatory, or otherwise likely-inappropriate-for-public-consumption thoughts before there was Facebook and Twitter and blogging. A private place to work out what you think about stuff and record what you ate for dinner. A place where it was safe to say dumb things because who would read it? A place where it was safe to say brilliant things that you would later recognize as dumb with a little more life experience under your belt because, again, who would read it? A place where you didn’t have to have it all figured out and prepare a defense of your views, your lifestyle, your existence.

Remember how you used to fly into a rage if your sister found your diary and read it? Now everyone’s reading your diary.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I read articles about why Twitter is dying and I realize that my first couple years on Facebook, when almost no one outside of Academia was on it, were filled with congenial exchanges with people I might otherwise not have a lot of chances to talk with because we were all so busy with grad school. Now Facebook is just all those annoying, cutesy, unsubstantiated forwards that used to junk up your email inbox. Now instead of deleting them without opening them, you see them — ALL of them — every day.

I have on many occasions been a click away from deleting my presence on Facebook and going back to living a life that doesn’t invite others’ opinions and unsolicited advice at every turn. But then, my parents get to see pictures of their grandson, so I should keep it up. Or now, I need to continue to build my online presence because I need effective ways to get the word out about my books once I start publishing novels. Or really, at this point there are a number of people I like to stay in touch with (many of my fellow writers, most of whom I know because of the internet) with whom I just wouldn’t stay in touch if we weren’t all on Facebook. So, I remain.

Then last week I had a realization that I think will improve my life greatly: I don’t have to use Facebook or Twitter as my diary.

I’ve never been great at keeping a consistent journal or diary, and all of my old attempts have pretty much been destroyed. I don’t want to remember how ridiculous I was in junior high. But now, as an adult who needs a place — a private place — to process life and record my hopes and dreams and fears, I’m turning back to journaling.

Over the past few years I have read through Virginia Woolf’s abridged diaries. I enjoy the staccato and often sarcastic way she describes her many visitors, both friends and people she merely tolerates. I’ve appreciated seeing her trials and triumphs in her writing, showing that the ups and downs I and so many others feel about their work are common to all writers. I’ve been enthralled by her descriptions of her surroundings. And I’ve appreciated that she doesn’t feel the need to write full sentences.

Thing is, if she and her friends and acquaintances had been on Facebook, she quickly would have had no friends and spent most of her time, thought life, and energies on explaining herself and apologizing when people misunderstood. She probably would have committed suicide much earlier in her life.

Instead, she put her insights and questions and suppositions into her fiction and her essays after safely trying them out on paper that no one would see until after she was dead. She sifted through her thoughts and theories privately before launching them into the world. She tested things out with close friends who wouldn’t assume the worst of her if she said something they didn’t agree with.

She didn’t go out into the streets of London and share her ideas with perfect strangers or even random acquaintances. She worked through things in her own mind, on the pages of her diaries, and with a small inner circle of close friends. And when she argued about God with T. S. Eliot around the dinner table, passersby did not poke their heads through the windows to comment. When she discussed politics with  Lytton Strachey, some lady she had as a substitute teacher in fourth grade did not burst through the front door and spout off some bizarre non sequitur to kill the conversation. When she made an off-hand comment about her truculent maid, she wasn’t then barraged with unsolicited and conflicting advice on how she should deal with the situation.

She simply wrote it out, pondered, moved on.

So with Virginia as my guide, I’m turning to the private page (an actual page made of paper that others do not see) and putting my thoughts there. I’ll still share things on Facebook and Twitter, but when I’m trying to process a sticky political point or when I want to work out my opinion on a matter of morality or when I just want to complain about something that hasn’t gone my way, I’ll do it in my journal. And someday, after I’m dead, after it doesn’t matter anymore, someone may read it.

But I won’t have to deal with the fallout.