Academic Advice, Writing

On Perfectionism – in Writing and in LIFE

Hanging_the_headWith this whole PhD thing, I do a lot of writing, which I’ve always been  horrendous at getting actually getting myself to do. A friend recommended spending the first 10 minutes of my writing sessions reading books by people who are good at it, so I picked up Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. I don’t hesitate to say that it contains some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received (not to mention it’s a quick and hilarious read).

But today’s chapter hit me in ways that went beyond writing, and I just have to share these words. They’re from her chapter on Perfectionism, and her advice is applicable to much more than writing:

 “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped up and insane your whole life…. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive believe 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.

Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.

Lamott goes on to describe her tonsillectomy at age 21: When she ran out of pain meds, the nurse told her to start chewing gum, explaining that our muscles cramp around wounds (causing more pain) and we have to use those muscles if we want them to relax again. Back to Lamott:

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. They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way….

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here—and by extension what we’re supposed to be writing.”

If you haven’t already, feel free to re-read that, replacing “writing” with whatever word you personally need to fill in…


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