If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard of Anne Lamott.
Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions in Writing and Life is often thrown at new writers (for good reason), and it was of great help to me when I was first learning to write.
One of my favorite parts is the chapter on perfectionism:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life… 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.”
The perfectionist reminds me of the hypochondriac that washes his hands thirty times a day, swallows a fistful of pills in the morning, and is too fearful to even leave the house. Afraid of all risks, unable to live, he watches the slow tick-tock of the clock as its hands wind toward death.
Perfectionism as a Defense
When I was fourteen, I suffered a minor disaster.
Yes, it was my first ‘C’. To make matters worse, it a math test; everyone knows Asians should be good at math. I was a dishonor to my family. What would my parents do to me? Ship me off to boarding school? Take away my second scoop of ice cream? Douse me with oil and roast me alive?
I had to destroy the evidence.
But how? I couldn’t hide the papers under the bed, my mother was too smart for that. What about the trash? No, she might reassemble the pieces and decipher its contents. Could I burn it? No, the smoke would give me away. Water? Ahh, yes! Water.
That afternoon, I flushed my test (it was five pages, I believe) down the sink, running the water until, one by one, the pages dissolved away.
So here I am today, still alive to tell you the tale.
Why did I hide the truth from my parents? Why was I so afraid to show them I had failed?
Lamott compares perfectionism to a type of “mental cramp,” intended to protect our fragile egos. When a part of our body is injured, the muscles around the wound cramp, hardening to protect the weakened area. The mind, says Lamott, works in a similar way:
“I think that something similar happens with our psychic muscles. They cramp around our wounds — the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliations suffered in both — to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out. So those wounds never have a chance to heal. Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp. In some cases we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping, are there, but both limit us. They keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways.”
Okay, so perfectionism is a defense mechanism. But what can we do about it?
A good first step might be to lower our expectations.
The Fantasy of the Uninitiated
When the Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa was cornered and about to be shot, he found himself lost for words. Desperately, he called out to a group of nearby journalists and shouted, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something!”
History polishes our heroes, wiping away the dirty details and leaving them looking shinier than they truly were.
Because I write essays on the internet and quite a few people read them, some readers are beginning to believe I, gasp, know what I am doing with my life.
Sorry folks, the joke is on you.
This week, I sauntered into my favorite cafe with my fly wide open. My socks rarely match. I forgot my mother’s birthday last year. And, of course, I wake up some days and no clue what to write about.
Only those who do not create think that creation is easy.
Lamott calls this the “fantasy of the uninitiated”:
“People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.”
Nobody truly knows what they want from life. Nobody is free from fears. All of us have nights where we lay, sweating, on the sheets, stare up into the blackness, and whisper, “What the hell am I doing?”
To be human is to be imperfect.
If you learn to accept that it is impossible to make your first draft, first company, first relationship, or first anything perfect, it becomes much easier to get started.
Lots of Pots
“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” -Confucius
So, you lowered your standards. You got started. Now what?
One of my favorite metaphors for combating perfectionism comes from a blog post by Neil Gaiman, titled Smashing Pots.
Here is a relevant excerpt:
Back in ceramics class, in college, at the end of the year we would gather up all our dishes and pots and sculptures that we had labored over for weeks … and we would look at them.
And what we generally realized was that we had created a lot of things that sucked. There is just a point where you hold this lumpy-ass thing in your hand and you realize that it has not added to the sum total of awesome in the universe — and that you don’t have to keep it.
You fail over and over and you fail fast and you are creating quantity to lead to quality. You throw and throw and throw and things die on the wheel and things die when you take them off the wheel and things explode in the kiln and after you have made a dozen or two dozen or a thousand, none of them are precious any more. There is always more clay.
When I first started writing, I was always asking myself, “What if I run out of ideas?”
But, with experience, I find the ideas don’t dry up. For each “lump of clay” that I spin into a story, essay or article, I find three more lumps waiting on the doorstep.
Dig under each masterpiece by a Lamott, Gaiman, Proust or Hemingway and you will find a graveyard of broken pots — open flies, mismatched socks, and stories that never made it.
Go break something.