Monday, May 7, 2012

Letting Go Of Perfect

At 2:41 this morning I woke up after a terrible dream where an MMA fighter threatened to kill me with a clothes iron if I didn't admit I failed at life. And as much as I pleaded with him that I screwed up, that I was wrong, he menaced me until I said, "I failed, okay, I failed." Then he killed me with the iron anyway, because the badguys in my dreams are often dicks like that.

I spent the next two-ish hours laying in bed, wide awake, scared to go back to sleep and scared to do anything about my racing heart and anxieties. Do I wake someone up and tell them what happened? What if I do that and they tell me the same thing they've said before (which is "you need to go talk to a professional" and "it's almost three in the morning, let me go back to bed")? So I didn't bother anyone else with it, and attempted to assert control over it. I figure if Indian Yogis can slow their breathing and pulse while living in a cave, surely I can stave off what feels like sodomy of my heart valves while submerged underwater while laying in bed.

So, like all people, I started thinking about what I have to do today (Monday). I have a morning full of edits for other people to do, I have to drop off a bike to someone, I have to shoot a commercial (or at least be in the room while the footage is edited, I'm not sure my exact role tonight), and I have three tasks that I've been meaning to get to, but keeping talking myself out of - I want to clean off this desk; I want to really work on the plot of my novel (now that it was pointed out to me that it doesn't actually get solved); and I really want to spend time today reading some of the books that have been part of a growing stack by the side of the bed.

Admittedly the books aren't really a problem. I can crack one open and get through it before bed. And the desk really won't be that big a deal to clear off, It's just a pile of papers to sort through, some garbage to throw out and things to put away in drawers - I can do it after I write this post. The commercial tonight is going to be amazing, because it's done by some great designers and actors and I get to be a part of it. The bike thing, yeah it's gnawing at me because I really don't want to have to deal with it, but you know what, it'll be over and done with and I can get on with my day. It's not going to be a big deal, it's just an errand, whatever.

The plot, yeah working with the plot is going to gnaw at me. And it's what I want to talk about today.

I want my plot and my characters, my whole book, honestly, to be perfect. I guess it comes from feeling so uneasy about myself or maybe taking it really hard when I get yelled at or chastised when I was little or just wanting people to like it and like me because of what I did. And I read a lot (I mean an absurd) number of ebooks and stories and drafts and things from a lot of authors and find myself saying, "That didn't live up to my expectations." or "I would do it differently" or "That ending kinda fell flat...I wanted more." And I do an ungodly amount of comparison to other people's work, even when I know I shouldn't.

Like right now I'm reading a biography of Rex Stout, a writer I greatly admire and whose characters Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe have been tremendously influential on my own characters (Kestrel and John Ramsey) as well as my reading in the genre (it's a tough yardstick to measure against). Yesterday I'm laying on the bed reading and I come across this sentence (I'll paraphrase):

"Rex was able to deliver a complete novel manuscript that didn't need much editing in 6 weeks, and a novella manuscript within 12 days."

After I read that four times to make sure it wasn't a typo, I paced through the living room a few times, absolutely bothered. A novel in 6 weeks? Someone reminded me that I've edited whole novels in 2 weeks, but, I said, editing is not the same as writing it. It's amazing. It's freaking unbelievable.

And it agitated me for the rest of the day. I want so badly to be like that. To be a whirling dervish of story telling and be prolific and loved by readers and regarded well, but how am I supposed to do that with all these other things on my plate?

Don't get me wrong, I love every single editorial job I have right now, and I am thrilled, humbled, grateful and awed by the work done on these projects by people who I strongly believe are among the best writers of their generation. But part of me (although a smaller part lately) says I too can write. And that I'm getting older (as if mid-30s are a death sentence) and I haven't accomplished the things I wanted to. And in that comes the anxiety.

Because if I'm going to do anything, whether it's editing or writing or cleaning the desk or giving stuff to people I'd rather not deal with, I want it to go perfectly (perfectly, I should point out, doesn't mean I get what I want while other people get shit on, I mean everyone involved gets what what's best situationally, even if the outcome isn't 100% exact to their desires).

So my book, I want it to be well-received and without flaws in the plot or the construction. I'm not expecting it to come perfect out of my head, I know all too well the editing that goes into it, but post-edits, I do want it to be the best thing I've written, without flaws. I recently edited a book and now it's out and available, and someone I know read it and would regularly say "Found a typo." This only happened two or three times, and I know they weren't saying it to turn a knife in my guts, but oh man, did that ever turn a knife in my guts. Because I want any work I do to be devoid of errors so that people will see that I do good work, and that the work is successful.

I have to let go of perfect. I know I do. I know perfect is unattainable. I know it logically. Even while writing this post I'm going back through and correcting my errors and changing sentences. But emotionally, I kick myself hard for not being perfect...or better. The two words are sort of synonymous in my head. I think they are for a lot of people, especially if they grew up with a perceived distance between them and the next person, either because they were smaller or less fit or bigger or less smart or not the most popular or whatever.

So I laid there in bed in the dark, hearing other people snore, and thought about plot of the book. Was it too complicated? Does that character have to die? Isn't that the same sort of thing everyone else does? Why do I have to reinvent the wheel? Is the fact that this is so goddamned hard a sign that I shouldn't be doing it? Over and over these questions tumbled through the dark space in the bedroom, and I scoured myself for answers.

The problem, I've identified so far, is that while I can write a good story, I don't know if it's good 'enough'. So maybe I should lump "enough" in with "better" and "perfect" and expunge them from my vocabulary. This constant comparison of did-I-do-better-than-that-other-person is only going to make my gray hair grayer and leave me awake in a cold sweat in the dark. But for as much I would love to say that this all stems back to the fact that I didn't get enough hugs in the first grade or that I made really poor choices with my last few relationships, what I'm really talking about it the fact that I spend a lot of time and energy believing in other people and not really believing in myself.

When I do believe in myself, I can sit down and write forty pages a day, and the ideas and words geyser out of me and it's a pleasure to write carefree and dynamically. But when there's all this doubt, that easy-wheeling nature ebbs and I start to sweat the writing of even a few new words and become critical of the ones I've already written.

I have noticed that when I believe in myself (which I do for a great many tasks without thinking twice about it), "perfect" doesn't enter into any part of what I'm doing. Want me to edit? Sure. Send the stuff to me. Go grocery shopping? Awesome. Want me to sort out the recycling? Rock on. But....install a ceiling fan on crappy wires in a cramped dark overhead space? Not so much. Build a stepstool that looks like came from a factory of blind Morlocks? Not without wanting to throw the wrench across the room.

Yes you can say, "John, lots of people would feel exactly the same way in those situations. That's totally normal." And yes, I'm sure loads of people would get super frustrated upon discovering that the wiring is substandard and likely a fire hazard or that the stool is missing vital parts (like pre-measured drilled holes), but if they are, they're not saying shit about it. I wish more people would. I kinda blame social media for driving people towards the ends of the poles (either super-fantastic-yay-moments or end-of-times-complaining), rather than somewhere in the middle where we just get to moments where we hate Philips head screwdrivers and feel tense about our work.

Perfect is not what I want. Complete is what I want. Love, for lack of a more clear word, is what I want. And that means I have to clamp down on that screaming voice that tells me that if my work isn't perfect it won't be enjoyed. That, if you're curious, can be SUPER hard.

But I'm working on it. And will continue to work on it. I guess the first step is to clear off this desk, then go deal with this bike situation.

Have a good day writing everyone.