July 2016. I’m at the Creekstone Inn in Idyllwild, California. A bed and breakfast place with a lodge feel to it: old lady furniture, the smell of wood and jacuzzi tubs in every room. In the lobby three French women are drinking and playing pool and I want to be one of them but I’m trying to write instead.
I’ve spent the last six days at Idyllwild Arts Writers Week in a bunk with three other fellowship recipients. All women. Two poets and a nonfiction writer. We travelled in a pack all week and probably seemed clique-y but the truth is we just had no privacy so summer camp inevitabilities took hold.
Idyllwild Arts is actually a residential high school during the year. Everywhere you walk on campus you hear horn players warming up, you see paintings plastered on walls, sculptures tucked between buildings, kids with cameras studying how light falls, girls in ballet tights moving through the cafeteria with perfect posture.
My workshop leader was Samantha Dunn who is also my editor at Coast (I write a book round-up called Shelf-Awareness). On the second day of class, after several ice breakers and writing exercises and fun, I finally asked her about the real shit.
I loved playing with the prompts, I said but wanted to know how she approaches her work when she’s got a full draft and is doing major surgery, that part of writing that is endless decision-making and analysis. The ruthless part.
“How do you do it?” I asked.
“I get weird,” she said.
The class laughed a little.
“I do. I get weird,” she said. “I get up, I move around the room, I listen to Tom Waits. I do whatever it takes.”
Something clicked when she said this. It felt like she was giving us permission to make a mess.
Writing does not seem messy the way painting can seem messy, the way working on a student film can feel messy, the way my left hand is smeared with graphite when I draw. Writing is the opposite of tactile at times. You’re a million miles away on another planet while you work.
In 2015 I got so depressed I didn’t write for several months so I took a drawing class to trick my brain into a hard reset. Each class my instructor Jane Bauman would plop a model in front of us and force us to confront the figure. The expectations were simple: we were supposed to make a mark and deal with it’s inevitable imperfection.
David Ulin addresses this failure in one of my favorite essays on writing from the Paris Review:
“…writing…remains an unsteady process, a balancing act between expectation and an almost willful lack of expectation, between my aspiration and my failure, between what I want and what I cannot do….I’m familiar with this now…but then, it used to drive me crazy, the imperfection that sets in with the first written word.”
During his talk on structure at Idyllwild, Ulin talked about the need to transmit narrative without getting in its way. He quoted Burrows who said all that writers need to do is “function as the recording entity” and made me think of that brief foray into life drawing.
Ulin said that as a kid when he set out to write a novel the first thing he would do is number the pages of a notebook.
“Okay, I will now write a 170 page novel.” He would say to himself.
It sounds funny but he explained that in some ways it made sense because he was defining a structure, even if only for himself and even if it was bound to be broken; it was a mark to be dealt with.
I am incredibly embarrassed about how long it has taken me to finish the book I’ve been working on and I haven’t been comfortable naming the actual cause of my delay until now, which is, quite simply: fear.
“Perfectionism has a marvelous way of tricking people into thinking that it’s there greatest trait,” -Elizabeth Gilbert
If you’re looking to kick start your creative juices in 2017, Gilbert has a great course on Udemy and it’s super cheap. In it she discusses perfectionism at length explaining how it is pretty much just fear in high-heeled shoes and a mink coat pretending to be really fancy.
I don’t openly love Elizabeth Gilbert but I definitely read “Big Magic” with simultaneous thoughts, which were:
Man I hate everything about this.
And: Man this exactly what I need to hear.
Though I am now beginning to realize it’s probably more like: man I hate everything about this because it’s exactly what I need to hear.
In this lecture Gilbert also quotes Rebecca Solnit in the New Yorker:
“…the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible and the fun.”
But the most compelling part of Gilberts lecture is her retelling of Ann Pachett’s analogy of “killing the butterfly.” Here’s Pachett’s original quote from her essay collection “The Story Of A Happy Marriage”:
“During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together, I don’t take notes or make outlines; I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty…and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall…I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air… and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page… What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.”
The perfectionist vision can either live on forever in your head or you can actually make something.
In our workshop in Idyllwild there was only one man in our class. He was in his 60’s, a veteran who’d travelled the world and said he was there to begin writing the book that he’d had in his head for over 30 years. On the first day we all went around the room and said what was blocking us. The guy listed his wife as one of the chief reasons why he wasn’t able to start writing, she just demanded so much of his attention you see? The rest of us all made eyes at each other. (I jokingly called him out on it later because I am an asshole like that.)
A couple days later that man did an amazing thing, when you think about it: he wrote 10 pages of that book that he’d had in his head for 30 years and then he shared those pages with the rest of us. The story’s potential was off the charts, the concept had Hollywood film written all over it but ultimately it read like it was written by someone who hadn’t written much.
He was in the first group to get workshopped and then never came to class again.