The Horror, The Horror: Perfectionism’s Dangers

In December, The New York Times published a piece on perfectionism, how those of us who are perfectionists may be more inclined to mental distress, including depression and suicidal thinking, than the imperfect out there.

Unfortunately, I’m a perfectionist, though I tend to waver between the triad of behaviors researchers have discovered: at any given time I have struggled with perhaps overly high standards I’ve set for myself to the point in which my inner critic sends me to the edge, have placed my own high expectations on others, and have, in turn, killed relationships, and have agonized over living up to ideals I believe others expect of me to the point of being caught in downward spirals that have crushed me.

As psychology professor Gordon L. Flett notes in the piece, in some aspects of life, surgery, say, or editing, perfection is a necessity: mistakes can have dire consequences.

In my life as a writer and editor, I’ve tended toward perfectionism at each of the three levels described in the piece. In particular, I engage in self-criticism to the point of getting depressed that anything I write or edit will never be good enough. At the same time I fret outside criticism, especially when it’s negative, coming to believe that if I haven’t met expectations, I have failed others, and myself. And I’ve heaped criticism on others to the point of ridiculous shouting matches.

This morning I was close to despair when I discovered a comma splice in a comment I made here.

That’s an elementary mistake, and  a mistake no good writer should make. And that just shows you how stupid and incompetent you are.

Or those were thoughts that suddenly raced to mind, and it’s taken me half an hour to overcome what might to some seem a minor lapse. In just that little struggle with perfection and error, I can see the dangers of perfectionism. I was agonized by a comma splice, feeling horrified to have committed such an elementary grammatical error. For half an hour, I was an utter failure.

I’m not dead yet, however. I’m feeling much better now.

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Sentenced

This is a little game/writing exercise proposed by Helen Ginger of Straight From Hel, one I’m going to expand on:

“So, here’s my task,” Helen writes, “— share your favorite opening TWO sentences of something you’ve written, published or unpublished. In other words, the first two lines in a book or manuscript of yours.”

I’m modifying this exercise: I am going to present three sets of two lead sentences, all published, all nonfiction, but none from a book or manuscript. All are from features I wrote at the paper.

Often the men passing by wear tuxedos — some with tails, some with flashy ties — the women passing by wear full ball gowns — some are sequined and glitter under the spangle of lights emanating from the mirrored ball hanging from the ceiling; occasionally eccentricities such as feather boas float into the scene. The image is that of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, or even the set of the Lawrence Welk Show (who incidentally visited Temple once and supposedly had to borrow money to leave).

Those two sentences are from a feature on ballroom dancing. At the moment they fill me with sadness and regret; I don’t, however, have a sentimental attachment to ballroom dance. Instead, that feature was written at the beginning of  2006, the year I left the paper. I regret leaving the paper, though when I left I didn’t regret it; in fact, I was happy to get out of a place that was increasingly becoming a difficult hell for me (I don’t miss the hellish parts of the experience. What I miss is writing, and trying to challenge myself continually as a writer. Leaving the paper seems to be a big mistake these days, especially since I didn’t leave to go to a bigger paper, or better writing experience; I changed careers: I went into teaching, and later publishing. That switch of careers seems to have put an insurmountable wall between me and the newspaper world, and journalism in general. I long to get back in, but the wall won’t budge.)

Imogene Newman’s house stands on a lot surrounded by pasture land thriving with dandelions. The gray brick house dispels any image of Appalachian shacks where pompadoured preachers might wander, and for a price, might lay hands on a sick child.

He likes to get his motor running, but Larry Northmore isn’t seeking adventure when he heads out on the highway. When he saddles up on his 1997 Honda Ace, he has only one purpose: to try to bring people to the Lord Jesus Christ.

These two sets of sentences are from religion features. Though I’m a devout unbudging agnostic, covering religion, in particular the varieties of personal religious experience, was fascinating. These leads, though, have an almost religious significance to me: both increased my faith in my writing, especially after both went across the wire. It was the first time my writing went beyond the local audience.

Anyhow, these are some favorite sentences.

Sharing a Feast of Love

Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love is a novel that should star Kevin Spacey in its movie version (a Google search just revealed the book was made into a movie last year; Kevin Spacey wasn’t in it). Or at least the subdued Bradley W. Smith, whose narrative voice is central to a multi-voiced meditation on love, would ideally be cast as Spacey in a movie version of the book.

Spacey tends to play the middle class lonesome loser who sort of redeems himself, or gains something by the end of the film. Like those many Spacey characters — I’m thinking specifically of American Beauty, without all the darkness of that comedy — Bradley is the lonesome loser type, a manager of a mall coffee shop, who loses two wives, but in the end gains, at least for a brief moment, the love he’s searching for.

Using multiple narratives, Baxter plays a metafictional game, opening the novel with the novelist Charlie Baxter trying to write a novel: the novelist then goes about interviewing the characters, and the characters then go on telling the story with multiple voices. Baxter masters the multiple narrative, without losing the reader.

Bradley’s narrative is central to this novel: the coffee shop he manages — Jitters — draws in several of the other characters: Esther and Harry Ginsberg (though they also happen to be Bradley’s neighbors), Diana, and Chloe and Oscar, all of whom, in turn, relate their own love stories. Bradley’s love life is also a narrative hub around which the other narrators circle, from which they then branch out on their own narrative spokes, sometimes relating their own stories, sometimes commenting on the lives of others.

Bradley’s love-lost-love-gained narrative also generates the thematic arc of the other characters, the most interesting of which is the love-lost-love-gained story of Chloe and Oscar, a young punk-rock couple with, oddly, middle-class aspirations. Both abandoned by their families, they pursue a tragicomic, vaguely Romeo-Juliet love story, Oscar’s father Mac Metzger — the Bat — serving as both Montague and Capulet, forbidding, yet never stopping, the couple’s love. Their story serves the theme, deepening its meaning. Unlike Bradley, Chloe never loses at love; it’s never brief, even when it’s threatened by the sinister-yet-ridiculous figure of the Bat.

Even the appearance of loss — Oscar’s death — doesn’t deter Chloe or her love. She works through her grief, encouraged by love, by her belief that somehow Oscar will return to her.

“Once someone has bound your heart,” she says, “he’s the only person who can let it loose again. I’m waiting, Charlie (the novelist). I’m patient. I don’t ever want my heart unchained, except by him.”

Ready to Face the Void?

My writing career, such as it is, seems caught between desires, one to write fiction, the other to write nonfiction.

When I first started writing, the desire to write fiction was dominant. The stronger desire now is to write nonfiction, specifically to write literary journalism, not the genteel, narrow attempts I made as a daily newspaper feature writer, but the serious kind like Bob Shacochis writes.

Yesterday I spent several hours distracting myself online reading selections from Mayborn magazine, a publication of The Mayborn Graduate School of Journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton.

One of the selections was an essay by Shacochis, a piece that nagged me yesterday, and all day today, in the way good writing is supposed to nag you: there are sentences, images and ideas that your mind won’t let go. Things you weigh, analyze and think about for hours, weeks, months, years afterward.

Shacochis writes about his own divided interest:

I will be torn between the two, fiction and nonfiction, marriage and promiscuity, living an imaginary life internally and bearing witness to the firehose-in-your-face-blast of the external, between invention and reportage, between the profound truths that spin out of elegant lies and the profoundly damaging lies that are the inevitable by-product of inauthentic truths. For a writer, both this and that, you might agree, are spellbinding.

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Literary Citizenship

I used to love to read about the pissing matches between writers — Norman Mailer, for example, headbutting Gore Vidal.

But those hissy fits came from a different era, when writers could act flamboyantly, and get away with it. People still read then. Now, now it’s different. Writers need good karma in a time when readers and even writers seem less interested in reading.

Brevity links to a post by writer Blake Butler that offers some ideas for generating better karma between writers, outside of headbutts.

Riding The Wave

Walter Mosley’s novel The Wave reads like an X-Files episode.

The book fields aliens, government secrecy and conspiracy, and a heavy-handed-ominous-the-truth-is-out-there atmosphere, but sans Scully and Mulder. Instead, we get Errol Porter, an out-of-work computer programmer compelled to investigate a series of mysterious phone calls from someone claiming to be his long-dead father, Arthur.

Errol tracks the caller to the cemetery where his father is buried and discovers a young man who vaguely resembles his father. Porter convinces himself that GT — short for “Good Times,” the moniker the young man claims for a name when asked — is some slightly-off-his-nut half-brother from a secret family his father must’ve kept. That’s the only way GT could know so many details from Errol’s life. Even when things get weird — GT noms a stomach-full of sand and babbles about some unifying phenomenon known as the Wave — Errol maintains his skepticism. Eating sand and babbling about the Wave is only part of GT’s delusion. Only after GT reveals family secrets that Errol’s father could know — an affair and a murder — does Errol begin to relinquish his skepticism, and accept the possibility his father has somehow been resurrected.

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What is an Essay (Part 2)

Susan Orlean wrangles with the nature of the essay in her introduction to Best American Essays 2005:

Anytime I read an essay, write an essay, or, as is the case here, sort through and select the very best of a year’s essays, I find myself wondering what an essay is —what makes up the essential parts and structures of the form. . . .Is an essay a written inquiry? A meditation? A memoir? Does it concern the outside world or just  probe the writer’s interior world? Can it be funny? Does it have answers or does it just raise questions? Does it argue a point or is it a cool, impartial view of the world? Does it have a prescribed tone or is it absolutely individual — a conversation between the writer and reader, as idiosyncratic as any conversation might ever be?

The essays selected for the collection seem slotted in to answer the questions Orlean has about the essay. Some like Michael Martone’s “Contributor’s Note” and David Sedaris’ “Old Faithful” are funny. (Humor, especially if it’s classified as nonfiction, gets spanked because of exaggeration to the point people claim it and perhaps its writers should be lashed for the lack of truthfulness; Sedaris has recently been washboarded by the press. These interrogators seem justified because many recent memoirists and journalists have exaggerated or just plain damn lied. Exaggeration or even fictionalization, though, make the humor work; it’s intentional to that form of writing, and not outright lying, except for the effect of laughing. The whole of one of my favorite essays, or series of essays, Mark Twain’s “Letters From the Earth, Satan’s Letter,” is fiction, or written in the voice of Satan; and yet it’s not a short story — it’s Satan making an argument from evil: why is there evil in the world if God is wholly good? Such an essay leads to this question, I suppose: do essays have to be nonfiction?)

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