Enemy of the good

Last spring on one of my Vox portfolio reviews, Sara Shipley Hiles wrote, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Sara knew that I would poke and prod at a story until the very last second and would often be afraid to show her a draft that might qualify as simply “good” or even “mediocre.”

Anne Lamott calls perfectionism “the voice of the oppressor,” the “enemy of the people.” I guess some people caught on to this whole “perfectionism is the enemy” thing while nine-year-old Hilary ironed her dolls’ dresses and matched her nail polish to her outfits on a daily basis.

Even in elementary school, I never really noticed that my best work would happen when I would cross the perfect lines of the notebook paper and write a story that stretched the prompt, or was even a little messy. When I allowed myself to be as creative as I wanted, I could write or do anything. It was only when I thought about the task that I was soon constrained by the limits of having to be perfect.

This idea would send me into a nervous panic, and suddenly I’d be sitting in front of an assignment for hours. I was literally paralyzed by a fear of failing. My mother once sent me to the computer to work on a sixth grade report on Switzerland and found me six hours later, staring in front of a blank screen. I knew all about the chocolate and the clocks and Heidi, but I was afraid of writing anything that might have to be rewritten.

The interesting thing is that this fear of failure comes from a hint of success. I’d been told I was a good writer since I wrote my fist short story in the second grade.  All of the sudden, there were expectations. I had to be someone who was good at something. In high school, after months of training, I became one of the fastest girls in my track group. I was just enjoying the way it felt when my legs moved like that, but the first time someone said, “Hey, you might get a scholarship for this,” there was a sense of expectation. The next race I ran, I made it one lap around the track, saw that I was in the lead and jumped off the track onto the turf. The image of my competitors moving past me still turns up in my dreams sometimes.

As I look ahead to this fourth week of school and the challenges that always come after the bliss of late August and lazy Labor Day, I’m aware of the enormity of the tasks ahead of me. I think my biggest fear in all of this is that I will forget my purpose at this school and that I will forget why I love to tell stories. But when I think of a story through a “one-inch picture frame,” as Lamott suggests, I don’t have these fears. Picture by picture, still by still, I see my week start to take shape. I understand each step I have to take, but I don’t take it until I see it right in front of me. The product might not be perfect on the first try, but it will be the best “good” I’ve ever turned out.

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One thought on “Enemy of the good

  1. There is an irony of perfectionism with imperfection. I find myself in the same boat often with assignments, because of the expectations. When it comes to yogic thinking, it is not of good practice to have any expectations and to meet the mat as if one had never practiced yoga before.

    I remind myself of that often when I am stuck at the keyboard or frozen with my pen in hand.

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