#AmWriting: Letting Go of Perfect

Newsflash: I obsess about getting things ‘right’.

This is ‘news’ only if you’ve never met me. If you have, then you’ve probably witnessed me ‘practicing in front of the mirror’ more than once.

There’s a scene in the pilot of Crossing Jordan (great show about someone who isn’t exactly neurotypical) where the lead character, Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh, played by the gorgeous Jill Hennessy, is washing up in a public restroom on the way to an interview. She stops, looks in the mirror, and practices what she’s going to say to her former boss about getting her old job back. It’s not just the words she’s practicing, but her facial expression, her tone, the right amount of emotional honesty.


There’s a story my mother tells about me. I was young, maybe four, spending the day with the sitters. Someone, I no longer know who he was or what his relationship to them or me was, arrived and I was told to “say hello to Uncle Joe.” I didn’t. And for more than an hour, I disappeared. When they came looking for me, they found me in the bathroom, standing in front of the mirror, saying “Hello, Uncle Joe” over and over and over in varying tones, trying to get it right.

A couple of years ago, I realized I’m still practicing in front of the mirror. In my writing, I will write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite my first scene or scenes until I feel like they’re just perfect. If the action is right, but the tone isn’t, it drives me to distraction. If the cadence of the words feels off, I get twitchy. If the characters don’t leap off the page… If the scene-setting isn’t sufficiently evocative… If the imagery isn’t compelling… If I can’t feel the emotion… If If If. So I keep writing it over again, showing it to my mirror (usually Lily Edwards is my mirror stand-in), until I get the right reaction from her.

I’m not sure still whether it’s that in my head, there’s a Platonic form of the story that I’m trying to express in an imperfect medium, or that I’m aware there’s a reaction it’s supposed to provoke, and I’m not comfortable with my ability to achieve it. Or both, neither, some combination of the above and something else.

What I know is that it’s obsessive, self-destructive, and the enemy of the good. I’m pretty sure it’s related to my need to use All the Words to make sure you (rhetorical you, unidentified ally of ‘them’) understand me. I don’t have a problem being concise. I have a problem being misunderstood. There are other formative incidents–like being accused of being manipulative for crying when I was too angry to make words–but whether they’re the chicken or the egg…shrug.

My emotional baggage isn’t my point here (I’ve typed and retyped sixteen different qualifiers, ahem, see above). My point is that it takes me forever to write, and I make it painful to the point of not wanting to do it at all, because I’m sure I’m not doing it perfectly. I’m positive that my vision isn’t being understood exactly how I want it to be.

And that’s weird. Because as an art historian, I spent years talking about expectation, context, audience reception, museum display and how a piece of art’s meaning was inherently subjective. There might be an overarching message in the iconography of the Pieta, for example, but how it strikes any given person depends on everything else about them. Viz, for me, I’ll never again think of Michelangelo’s Pieta without also thinking of an image of a Gazan woman cradling the body of her dead son. It’s transmuted a fundamental moment of the Christian mythos into a contemporary statement on the tragic waste of life in a war that I still can’t figure out how to talk about. (Thus, imagery.)



So what? That’s always the bottom line, right? At least that’s what my art history demigoddess  (I wonder if she remembers telling me she was sure I could do the graduate seminar assignment, but she wasn’t convinced I could write the five-page paper she’d assigned me?) always said. “Okay, so what?” (She’s not the only one. The list is looooooong.)

So… I’ve decided to let go of perfect. It doesn’t exist. Or if it does, it exists in the completion of the thing, not in the form that’s in my mind. If I don’t put something out there, it can’t be misunderstood or disliked, but it can’t be understood or loved, either. Wish me luck?