Writing Secrets: The cure for perfectionism is love
In the nineteen-eighties, a writer named Elizabeth Tallent published four novels, and her short stories appeared frequently in The New Yorker. Then followed a 22-year silence.
She has broken it with a memoir which focuses on a subject close to many of our hearts. She writes of her long writer’s block and the reason for it. She blames perfectionism.
She suffers from an extreme form of this malady, having grown up with a mother who refused to hold her as a new-born because she suffered scratches during the birth process.
Most of us can identify with her: we expect the best and, when our writing appears imperfect, we can’t bear it. It breaks our hearts. It gags us.
She traces her habits of procrastination back to this cause, and it’s probably true for all of us. Every day I ever sat down to write, I did so with panic – a flutter in my heart. I feared I wouldn’t be able to do it. Or at least, that I wouldn’t be able to do it well.
In A Memoir of Perfectionism, Tallent writes: “Perfectionism is a form of being terrified of, and what follows that of is a blank every perfectionist would probably fill in differently, but whose large, generalizing term may be loss.”
It’s probably easy to say it, but no piece of writing is perfect. No manuscript is likely to be a work of towering genius – certainly not without another eye, and a few robust rewrites. Even then, how many works of towering genius come along in a generation.
It doesn’t have to be a great masterwork to be remembered; to mean something to a reader; to provide some insight into human nature or a society. We need to cut ourselves some slack.
In Tallent’s opinion, the cure for perfectionism is love. Her “mortal loneliness” begins in “blindness to what is right before one’s eyes”. Above living people and living work, perfectionists value only an idea: “a radiant, ultra-real changeling”.
A lover loves the imperfect. The scratches on the beloved become precious. A commitment to perfection requires too great a sacrifice. The perfectionist, on the other hand, must renounce all that is imperfect – which is to say, all that exists.
Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: How to squeeze suspense from your story‘