Some of you may be shocked by this confession, but I’m coming clean: I’m an idealist. That’s a nicer way to say I’m a perfectionist.
I’ve idealized and romanticized lots of things—work, family, friendships. My idealism has been toned down as it crashes into reality. (Relationships are good for such reality checks.) My idealism remains strongest, therefore, in the places where the refining power of relationship rarely butts against it.
Such is the case in writing. Writing can be such a isolating activity that relationship reality doesn’t have much opportunity to do its refining work. Writing is left untouched, unreal—unless the writer takes a concerted effort to write in community. (But that’s for another day . . . for now, let’s get back to idealism.)
Writing is romanticized because it is mysterious, and mystery begs to be defined and understood. So I have erected a structure about this mysterious writing life to give it edges and boundaries. The construct gives shape to something that is fuzzy and elusive. Here’s what the writing life looks like in my mind’s eye:
Solitude and peace and concentration meet the writer at dawn. With no responsibilities beckoning, the writer has hours of uninterrupted think time. There are long walks, long prayers, long pages written. All this is centered about a fanciful writing cabin (with all the modern amenities, of course) or upon a rock in the wild (one that is miraculously comfortable for hours on end). Scribbled thoughts turn into pages of perfected prose with ease. Each day’s work is satisfying, successful, meaningful.
Pretty picture, huh? Fairy tales have the luxury of perfection.
My writing life fairy tale keeps me ever seeking a mirage and never getting solid ideas on the page. The structure I’ve erected is one only a superhero could scale. And it keeps me from the reality of a writing life.
Julia Cameron speaks against this perfectionist bent in her book The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. Her charge to writers is that we should be willing to write imperfect sentences and paragraphs and chapters (see pages 22–26). We need to be free to produce some really bad writing.
The idea of it made my chest tighten.
Obviously, my need to write right the first time has put me in bondage. That’s not a good place for a writer to be. It suffocates creativity and stifles progress.
Just as a woman births a newborn babe, so I, a writer, will birth a newborn work. Newborn creatures are unpredictable. They are needy. They are still learning. New writing is similar: unpredictable, needy, still in process. A newborn work will be fragile and wiggly, needing attention and guidance as it grows.
And just as no woman would birth a full-grown adult, so I must remember that a writer will not birth a full-grown work. The idea of birthing a full-grown person is humorously ridiculous and completely unappealing. This I must apply to my writing so that I am free from the trap of needing to produce something perfect and complete at first pass.
I now want to birth a work and guide it to maturity. I want to see my newborn’s personality take shape. I want to parent my writing ideas and see what they grow up to be.
1. Julia Cameron, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life (New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, 1998), 20.