Paralyzed by Perfection

Mom and Dad

A not-so-perfect, but favorite photo of my mother and father.

Last night I was having a conversation with my mother about what we’d both been up to in the past week.  She often tells me of her bridge games, if she won any master points, and what she’s been doing with the other snow birds in the Daytona Beach campground where she escapes the cold winter.  (It’s Bike Week so I got to hear about old men trying to recapture their youth by tooling around on really expensive motorcycles [in leathers that should probably be altered to fit better] and chasing girls a third of their age.)  She also tells me about books that she’s reading or has in her waiting-to-be-read pile.

So I start telling her about one of the books I’m reading, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown.  In an effort to reclaim my creativity, I’ve been working through a process where I attempt to abandon perfectionism in my writing and I thought this book would be helpful.  I tell my mother, the ultimate perfectionist, that maybe she would like this book too because I’m really enjoying it and finding it insightful.  What did my mother say?

Mom: I’m not a perfectionist!
Me: Yes you are. You’ve admitted it to me numerous times. You can’t go back and deny it now.
Mom (now flustered): I’m not a perfectionist!
Me: What about the yard…the house??? I think you’d like the book. I think it’d be good for you.
(silence…then in true Mom fashion…she changed the subject)

I am, by no means, perfect.  I’ve always known this because, despite my mother’s insistence, I grew up with perfectionist parents.  If you were ever in my shoes, you’d know that you can never do or be enough for a perfectionist parent.  It’s a tough situation for a child who, for the longest time, would do almost anything to get a gold star in living from her parents.

When I say my father and mother were/are perfectionists, I want you to understand that their perfectionism extended to everything they touched. There could never be a dish or a drop of water left in the sink. (Let me tell you–the first time I moved out on my own I piled all of my dishes in the sink just because I could.)  I spent countless hours of my childhood in the blaring heat of the summer sun picking up tiny sticks in a 3.5 acre yard with a pair of fireplace tongs. (To this day I think the tendonitis problems in my hands started with those damn heavy iron tongs.)  One summer my mother spent weeks bleaching the patio bricks, which already looked perfect.  (I hate to even think what that did to the groundwater or septic system, but there was no stopping her).  Yes, my mother would vacuum a forest if she could–Mother Nature be damned.

Now, when I finally abandoned any attempt at getting a gold star for obsessive cleanliness or back-breaking, pointless yard labor, I didn’t abandon perfectionism in my writing or creative work.  I also didn’t recognize it as perfectionism until much later in my life.  I could, like Oscar Wilde said, spend “all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.”  Editing froze my writing process.  I became paralyzed by perfection.

I turned to other creative pursuits because often when I feel blocked in one creative area of my life, being creative in another area tends to help break the block.  Thankfully, I am at no loss when it comes to the types of creative endeavors that I love.  I studied photography, which is a fabulous companion to writing (I’m thinking of photographer/writers like Walker Evans here…).  I designed jewelry, made hats, painted, crafted masks, but in the end my creative perfectionism reared it’s ugly head again.

I was commissioned to make a fascinator by a friend who was going to a fancy event and wanted something special to go with her dress.  I was excited by the commission and the possibility of making something to enhance an experience for someone I cared about.  Things didn’t go so well though.  I ended up making three hats before I was satisfied.  The first one resembled a stargazer lily, but I just wasn’t happy with it and I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why.  I turned to an artist friend for advice.  Her response–“It’s too perfect.  Nothing in nature is that perfect.”

I had once again lost my self in perfection.

In an effort to cure the problem of perfection in my writing (and in other areas of my creative life), I started stream-of-consciousness journaling almost daily.  I don’t allow myself to go back and edit anything–a misspelled word, punctuation or lack thereof, etc.  I just write and I’ve learned not to care about how the words spill out on the page.  I’ve found that when I try to craft something that requires editing, that I obsess less over Oscar Wilde’s comma.  After all, this piece on perfectionism got written, so something must be working!

So now, when I’m at a place where I am obsessing overly much about a detail, I take a deep breath and repeat to myself, “Nothing in nature is that perfect.”  Then I move on, whether my innate perfectionist wants to or not.

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Re-Learning to Dance in the Rain

168028583_a3f906017bSo why start this blog? Why now?

When I was in my early 20s I lived with a group of amazing women who loved thunderstorms (we have some doozies in the mid-Atlantic states). Each of us had our own trials in those years. We were sidetracked by lovers, leavers, stalkers, thieves, and a lot of downright idiots. But when a summer storm rose and electricity streaked across the sky, raising the hair on our arms, we were always drawn out into the melee, as if the unstable atmosphere reflected our own tenuous steps into a world where we tried to balance our dreams with the harsh realities of life.

We’d splash in the rivers running down the alley and twirl about in gauze skirts that clung, sodden, to our thighs and calves. I remember lightning striking only feet from where I danced. It shook the ground–it was so close–and I nearly fell. I’m not sure what, exactly, we ever got from dancing around in the pouring rain, but it energized us and we’d end up tumbling through the back door of the house we shared, dripping wet and laughing–all of our cares washed away for a day.

Those are good memories of what, looking back, seemed to be a happy time. We did have a lot of fun…did a lot of partying…tested the waters to the point where we were in danger of drowning…

So Michelle… what exactly does all this rain dancing stuff have to do with starting this blog?

For awhile now I forgot what it was like to dance in the rain.  Metaphorical lightning has been striking around me so often that this time, it did knock me off my feet. I fell so hard and was hurt so badly that I nearly lost the love of my life–the written word.

I am a survivor of nearly three years of emotional, psychological, and professional abuse by a manipulative bully. One of the bully’s tactics was to verbally beat down everything I excelled at–to take my talents and make me question the validity of those talents by repeatedly telling others of my “failings”. After a lifetime of dealing with different types of bullies, I’ve found this to be a common tactic. This, however, was the first time that I suffered through it for such a prolonged period with so little available to me to escape the attacks or counter them.

My skill as a writer was bashed regularly. If someone puts you down enough, you begin to believe it–even if deep inside yourself you know they are spewing venomous lies. I started to question my abilities. At the core of my being I knew this was what the bully wanted. She took all joy out of the written word for me and her psychological attacks kept me on constant alert like a kudu approaching a quickly evaporating watering hole.

I countered the bullying with everything I had. My dad taught me to stand up for myself and to always fight back (although he was rather literal when it came to the word fight). It’s just not in me to roll over and play dead. I am my father’s daughter after all, and I’m not dead yet.

My nerves frazzled, my health suffered, but I couldn’t allow myself to give up. I couldn’t allow the bully to win. I was strung tighter than horse hair in a violin bow.

My existence distilled down to a few necessary actions. Eat. Breathe. Work. Fight. Repeat. (Notice that “sleep” is missing as well “create” and many of the basic things that give life joy…)

When you walk into each day braced for battle and every word, email, or glance has been  forged into a weapon that is pointed directly at you, you tend to put up your shields. Shields may not let anything in, but they also don’t let anything out. You become trapped in them if you have to hold them around yourself for any length of time, and let me tell you, after three years, I was trapped.

So, again, why this blog? Why now?

I’m determined to hold onto what I feel made me the person I am today. My creativity plays a huge role in that. And this blog is a means to helping me rekindle my creative spark. I nearly lost it for good to years of bullying.

I’m working to reclaim what that bully tried to steal–my love of the written word and my confidence in all of my creative abilities. And this time, I get to do it on my own terms. My sandbox. My rules.

I have a small framed piece of fabric by my desk embroidered with a quote by Vivian Greene.  It says, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass… It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” It reminds me that every step I take into the world can greet me with joy or pain, fear or excitement, a lightning strike that shakes me to my core or a gentle rain that washes me as clean as holy water.

I intend to make this blog my victory dance. And if the steps are a little tentative and sloshy and the thunder and lighting shake the ground–I’m just going to keep dancing. Care to join me in a few steps?