The writer Anne Lamott has warned that perfectionism “will keep you cramped and insane your whole life”.
If you’re tempted, the message is, let go of it as soon as possible.
In this presentation, I want to touch in with what such a flat “don’t go there” does not account for: the desire – for beauty, meaning, and generosity – that finds expression in this compulsion.
My way of entering is through a body-autoethnography. It’s my body’s memories and shaping in relation to writing that I want to foreground.
Baarlo, the Netherlands, late 1980s/early 1990s
I almost don’t want to say anything about this picture.
Imagine you are her, the young me, sitting there, taking on this shape, doing writing.
magine also the sensuality of the scene: the contact of fingers with keys, eyes with letters, skin with balmy summer’s air. The smell of corrector’s fluid a moment away.
Hong Kong, 2009
By this time, I’m an assistant professor at a university in Singapore.
Before coming to Hong Kong to this party, I’ve submitted the final version of the main article I wanted to publish based on my PhD thesis. It’s taken 4 years to get here, and countless rewrites. I’ve retraced my steps and found a better way with this paper So Many Times.
The final stretch was intense: home alone, my husband already at the financial investors’ conference in Hong Kong that was to put on this party, I allowed myself to get drawn into the minutiae of my text one more time.
The topic is “seeing through to the other side”, and I am in love with what where this long ride took me. The weird rightness of it. I want to finish, but I let myself surrender one more time to this thing that’s bigger than me, promising a little more rightness right around the corner. Till the minute I have to go the airport I’m at work.
I know it is disproportionate. Sometimes laughter erupts in me about the excess, the ridiculous lengths I’ll go to.
At the party, one of the fanciest I’ve ever been at, I get drunk on champagne, black out, and embarrass my husband by vomiting in public.
My body remembers this double excess. First the writing, then the drinking.
But also something else.
A moment of looking in the bathroom’s mirror while waiting for my turn at the sink. Seeing the faces of what I imagine to be models, checking their appearance before they’ll go back in.
What hits me with a force that still can make my breath stop, now: the strangeness of fitting right in. In this light, in this dress, with this make-up, right here right now, after writing to the limit, I could pass for a model.
It’s like I didn’t pay for all that effort, got my beautiful article free, not a scratch on me.
No one would suspect. My body’s covering for me.
Elaine Scarry’s lecture On Beauty and Being Just starts with the assertion that beauty prompts a copy of itself. It fuels the desire to make “more and more” so that there will eventually be “enough”. Staring is the simplest manifestation of how we place ourselves in the path of beauty, because it multiplies the moments that we keep something or someone beautiful in our sights.
There is something that floors me as I stare at myself in the mirror: elation but also grief.
My body gets drunk quickly that night, and the aftermath is awful.
Of course I do pay for all that effort.
Years and years of contorting my legs and hampering blood flow, of hunching forward, of narrowing my eyes and delaying breaks for the sake of just a little more, aren’t going to go unregistered.
In the autumn of 2014, prompted by seeing my posture in a side-angle photograph, I start Pilates, one-to-one lessons once a week together with home practice. I’m no longer an assistant professor now, that journey ended quickly because I wasn’t publishing enough. But I have a wonderful new academic job to pour my efforts into. Teaching, curriculum development, writing.
Starting Pilates, I find out something quite devastating: my body is a difficult case. The more my trainer analyses my movements, the more she finds a cruel contradiction. Misdirected and overdone contraction of some muscles is keeping other parts of my musculature weak. Whenever I’m going all in, exerting force and feeling my strength, I’m gently told to stop and begin again:
“Not like this. You’re overefforting.”
Between “too much” and “too little” I have to learn measured effort, balanced effort.
I stick with Pilates for four years, attempting to correct myself. Sometimes it appears to work; those shoulders are straightening a bit. Often the practice frustrates or bores me. It’s like trying to reverse the tide: my body and my writing want different things.
Girona, Spain, 2021
Based on what I wrote in my journal on Friday 16th July 2021:
Today, in the morning shower, the getting dressed, a different register came.
Different from the strident, buoyant re-owning of my body in the call with Mavis yesterday. What I heard myself say on that call, moved me. The perfectionist’s body as what is, what became. There being no way of hating it, of hating on it, of hating myself for it. Not needing to correct it, or counter the effort that shaped it with more effort, or erase the efforts that shaped it, in some Dorian Gray-like fantasy.
But today: a different register.
It’s the sharp pain in my right buttock that wakes me up at night that is the harbinger. I breathe and try to comfort my body. Go into the pain with my attention. There is a nagging feeling, the guilt of the perpetrator: “you did this”. I think of the practitioner I should go see; imagine how it would feel to have this place massaged, needled, pressurized. I’m thinking that I don’t have time for this.
In this other register, what comes is the knowing that going ‘too far’ with my writing has brought vitality, yes – but also the opposite. The editor I work with now makes me see how freshness and power in speech are reduced when I’m too carefully considering each word. Anne Lamott isn’t wrong to associate perfectionism’s tidiness with “held breath, […] suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.”
It’s the aches and pains, in the buttock, the legs, the shoulders, my right arm, that bring the grief in.
Scarry says the basic form of multiplying beauty is to hold still for it, so as to prolong its presence. The efforts of my writing body are also about holding still – the staring eyes, the held breath, the squeezed buttock – so that I can see and hear what’s right and beautiful, and make more.
The betrayal of that ‘holding still’ comes in two flavours: the text may become devoid of life, and the body wakes up at night.
My favourite thing is this: sitting here and scratching words onto paper.
My grief comes when I picture getting up and moving my writer’s body down the stairs, out the door, into the park with the dog.
The grief of not always knowing how to inhabit my body when it’s not writing.
Are we friends? I sometimes think so.
Yesterday I thought so.
Today I’m prolonging the sitting here, dreading the moment I will get up and walk the dog.
As presented at the 8th International Conference of Autoethnography, 18th – 20th July 2021. The recording of this presentation is available for a limited time, here. My turn starts at around 20 minutes in.
Thank you to: Antonio Alvarez, Chuanfei Chin, Mavis McAllister and Sue Walters.
Lamott, Anne (1995), Perfectionism. In: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, pp. 28-32. Available in pdf here.
Scarry, Elaine (1998). On Beauty and Being Just. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Delivered at Yale University, March 25 and 26, 1998. Available in pdf here.