Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Perfectionism Monster

I haven’t written a blog for awhile, and for that I would like to apologize. After a few not-so-subtle suggestions from my fiancé and family members, I have decided to break the ice and jump back in. I was trying to decide why it has taken me so long to come back to the blog after the craziness of my vacation, and I think the answer came tonight in a conversation with my aunt and uncle.

“Is it because you don’t want to do it anymore?” my aunt asked. “Because you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.”

But that’s not it. I have really enjoyed my foray into blogging, and have even mulled about things to write about since I’ve been home…but I thought that first, I should write up some of the travel stories I had collected while in Europe. I had started one of them, a longer post, but kept feeling like it wasn’t quite good enough…and so I couldn’t finish it.

Uh oh. That sounds an awful lot like the perfectionism monster sneaking in again.

The point of this blog in the first place was to let my writing be read, even if it was just by my family and friends. I wanted to write short, imperfect posts around a coherent theme that were well thought-out but somewhat spontaneous. And then, before the perfectionism monster could start whispering little words of doubt in my ear, I would simply press the button to post it.

And somewhere that got lost. I mean, sure, I would like to write insightful and precisely-worded pieces all the time, but if I can’t ever let it go beyond my own keyboard, then what’s the point? (See my Emily Dickinson post for more on this topic.) And even though my fiancé seems convinced that each post I write is “the best one yet” I know that is probably not true…much as I would like it to be.

And so, even though I have been back for a couple of weeks now, I kept making excuses. Some of them were quite valid. I have been busy trying to catch up on homework, go back to work, clean my house, do laundry, get groceries, buy dog food, etc, plus go out of town for a conference the first weekend I was back and spend time with friends… Yes, all this is true. But before I felt I could post another blog about things that were happening right now I thought I needed to finish the post I had started. After all, I promised you travel stories.

But my aunt hit it on the head. When I protested that I did want to keep working on the blog but I just couldn’t quite post yet because I wasn’t happy with it she asked, “Do you think maybe you’re setting your expectations a little too high?”

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the perfectionism monster. She’s a bit of a shape shifter, and the form she takes depends on the situation, but she usually looks a lot like my fears. If I am feeling body-conscious, she takes the shape of a gamine, statuesque, waif-like woman who wears pencil skirts that encapsulate her narrow thighs, expensive silk tops, sky-high stilettos, and hair that is always perfect no matter the weather. If I am feeling inadequately intelligent, she takes the form of an ivy-league-educated woman wearing a power suit and holding several PhDs. If I am feeling overwhelmed by the messy state of my house (it happens often) then the perfectionism monster turns into a British aristocrat, exacting in her need for cleanliness and emphatic that a well-bred woman know how to keep a well-tended house. And if the root of my perfectionism has anything to do with an artistic pursuit, such as writing, the monster becomes the nastiest critic in the New York Times, or some other cherished publication. I imagine her pushing up over-priced horn-rimmed glasses as she drinks a cup of chamomile tea and reads my work; then, she whips out a pen with blood-red ink and scribbles some words like “dull” “cliché” “over-wrought” “predictable” “facile” or “idiotic” and throws the manuscript into a flaming pile.

This, my friends, is why it’s so hard for me to post a blog. Or get ready in the morning. Or clean my house. Or write a relatively simple literature paper for a senior synthesis class that is due next Thursday (true story). Sometimes it takes the form of procrastination, and from the outside it can look an awful lot like laziness, but lurking in the background is the perfectionism monster, eyeing me with anticipation and waiting for the moment to pounce. Sometimes I can keep her at bay, but sometimes I have a harder time of it. Right now, with graduation and a million other “endings” and transitions staring me down, I tend to feel like I better make my last shot my best one. And then, I get nothing done.

I heard a writer at a conference once talk about the way she addressed this compulsion for perfection in her own writing, by using the metaphor of a second personality—the “bitch” who worried about grammar, structure, etc. She said that for her first draft or two, she had to “lock the bitch in the closet” or she would never get anything done. Her alter-ego was useful in the revising stages, but if she didn’t give herself that initial freedom then she would never get past the first page.

Okay, perfectionism monster. Sounds like you need a little quiet time in the closet. Turn the light on, read a book, think about things, but don’t make any noise and don’t come out until I let you out.

That is, if I ever let you out.