“The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good”

Or, why I haven’t been writing like a motherfucker. This will make sense later on in this post, I promise.

write like a motherfuckerI don’t know who originally said the perfect is the enemy of the good, but you know who quotes and paraphrases this all the time? Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, a show that I think is virtually perfect. There’s a lesson in that.

I never meant to abandon my blog for so long. Life just gets in the way sometimes. I had a pretty heavy courseload last term–advanced organic chemistry, behavioral endocrinology, evolution, two labs–as well as my job (in which I got a promotion of sorts) and then there is this little tiny test called the MCAT which has been sucking away all the leftover time.I always think I’m going to be better at time management than I actually am. Balancing my passions for science and writing is something that will probably battle on inside me for a long, long time.

But I haven’t forgotten about this blog at all. Sometimes, in fact, I get overwhelmed by all the things I want to post about. I have so many in mind–book reviews, discussions on writing-related topics, posts about all the Breaking Bad episodes I haven’t posted about yet, discussions on topics related to other TV shows, blindness and albinism-related posts, and the list goes on–but today I want to talk about writing. Or, more accurately, not writing.

I’ve been fighting with my writing self for several years now, it seems. I used to write all the time, day in, day out, hours on end. It didn’t matter what kind of job schedule I had. But in the last few years, it’s gotten harder. For some reason, putting my ass in the chair or couch or bed to write became more and more uncomfortable. I came up with several reasons why this might be. I didn’t really want to face the topic I most wanted to write about, either because of what it would reveal to me or about me or simply because I didn’t want to reexperience a second of it, even if not writing about it sort of kept me reexperiencing it more in an internal way. I didn’t want to face rejection or negative feedback. I felt paralyzed by some unintended consequences of past writing, and the list goes on and on. I was deeply involved in various and sundry forms of distraction, mostly through TV shows, and after some crazy experiences, I just didn’t want to be alone with myself, if that makes any sense. It did to me, maybe still does.

There were times that I’d get back into it for a little while, write for a few days, a week at best, and then go back into watching more Netflix than is remotely reasonable. Whenever I was taking a writing class along with all the science stuff, that helped too, because I had to write. And some pieces came out that probably never would’ve otherwise. I was taking this film class during fall term, and we had to write a creative response to one of the movies. I did mine in response to Hiroshima Mon Amor, which I couldn’t really follow at all, given that it was all subtitled (yeah subtitled films and legal blindness don’t mix well) and just tried to get by on what French I could pick up, even though I hadn’t taken French in about, oh, thirteen or so years. I had no idea what I would write in response and on the bus ride home after the class where we watched it, I thought of my impressions of the film. It seemed somewhat disjointed, repetitive, this couple coming back together and breaking up over and over. And somehow from that, I knew what I would write about, and that I would put it completely out of order, so that the impression of the piece would figure more prominently than the linear chronology. I worked on it obsessively for awhile. So my point is, I’ve been writing, but in fits and starts, not with a lot of consistency. There were times I spent more time analyzing why I wasn’t writing than writing.

And then, I read this thing that shed some light on things for me. So, I recently read Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. I had been hearing about Cheryl Strayed for awhile–because of The Sun magazine, which I love, and because she’s a local author, so I finally got on board and read her memoir, which was wonderful, and then read her Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar, which was a collection culled from an advice column that she wrote at a website called The Rumpus.

Well, there was this one letter in there from a writer, chronicling her self-doubt and frustration as a writer. Although my story wasn’t quite the same, I could really relate. I have felt a lot of the same doubts, a lot of the same fears about how women writers are received. I knew the anxiety and self-loathing. I could even relate to the letter writer (Elissa Bassist)’s admiration for David Foster Wallace (in fact, kinda mixing all of these things together, I’ve had anxiety and insecurity about the fact that if I, as a woman, weave science into my writing the way DFW weaves math, it will be seen as either derivative of his style or inferior and not as genius because I’m a girl).

Sugar’s response? Write like a motherfucker. Here’s the letter and the response.

In her response, Sugar says that getting some acclaim for her writing stoked some grandiose ideas she had about her talent. Later in her response, she says that underneath all that anxiety and self-loathing and worry is arrogance.

It’s not flattering but that immediately resonated with me. I’d always assumed that I originally started stopping writing on a regular basis because I was in a really unhealthy, sad, self-destructive relationship and had lost a lot of myself in that relationship, and had lost even more by not fighting for myself, and then I got really into watching all this TV to drown out any thoughts of the relationship and how I hadn’t fought for myself, and then sitting in the chair or couch or bed to write became more uncomfortable and I didn’t really want to be alone with myself anymore and surely that was part of it. But it was also around this exact time that I started getting little dribbles of writing acclaim. A writers residency here, a contest finalist there, a few little publications here and there. Of all the millions of reasons I tried to come up with for why I wasn’t writing regularly, my own arrogance had never crossed my mind, but it most certainly factored in.

It also wasn’t the first time. During most of my life, I’ve written prolifically, but I had a similar bout of writers block as a freshman in college. This also seemed linked to a relationship gone wrong, but I had also received a creative writing scholarship for the school I was going to at the time, a scholarship that was given to only three people. So, of course, all these things pose some pressure but it’s more than that. They feed the arrogance monster. And it is a monster. If the size of your head is totally inflated with delusional notions about how talented and special you are, it’s hard to write another word, because any word might shatter that fragile delusion.

I actually remember one time when I was at the start of my most recent not-writing-as-prolifically phase, thinking back to the taking memoir classes in my early 20s. I was the youngest in the class by decades, and the other writers would sometimes say things like, “Wow, so wise for your age. I didn’t think about things like that at all when I was 23.” When I looked back on this (I remember a particular paragraph that inspired that comment), I was maybe 29 and lamenting that since I hadn’t gotten a book out right at 23 no one would ever truly know how wise I’d been for my age, that even if I got it all published at 23, it would be a loss because that so-young-and-yet-so-wise impact would already be so diluted. I mean, talk about oversized ego, right? Nothing I could write could ever live up to my inflated image of myself or myself and my writing. What I did write, always felt short, and that just couldn’t fly. My oversized ego made sitting in the chair (or couch or bed) so uncomfortable. Even writing this blog often stirs up lots of anxieties.

The perfect–in this idealized image of what my writing should be, an image fueled by arrogance–had become the enemy of the good, of the okay, of all the crappy writing that has to come first to make way for good writing. What I should’ve been worrying about wasn’t whether readers would think I was incredibly wise and talented for my age, but whether I was doing the work, which I wasn’t. It’s very easy to have inflated ideas about yourself and your ability when you’re not doing the work. It’s not as easy for the two to coexist, and I suppose without realizing it, I chose my ego over my writing. Rookie mistake.

I’ve been reading some blog posts about a recent memoirists weekend retreat at which Cheryl Strayed was the keynote speaker. Jeanne Verville’s notes on the keynote address (which can be found on the retreat’s facebook page) include the phrase, “Surrender to mediocrity,” and I think that’s it, the crux of the thing, the way out. I think it will take some time and some practice, but I think the only way to keep writing is to be okay with my writing not being very good, because the truth is, first drafts usually aren’t. Especially when you haven’t written regularly in awhile. Gotta keep that inflated writer ego in check.

And of course, write like a motherfucker.

~Emilia J

P.S. I found Cheryl Strayed’s site, and then found The Rumpus and then found the site for the woman who had originally written the letter to Sugar, Elissa Bassist. And her writing is freaking AWESOME. It’s funny and wise and badass. There’s a piece about Netflix additions, another about David Foster Wallace’s Infinte Jest (which makes me want to start that book even more) and so, so much more to explore. Check it out:

Elissa Bassist

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4 thoughts on ““The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good”

  1. The world is a better place for me when I read your writing! No expectations…just how real /vulnerable you are gives such permission to that in me.
    Your words go down smoothly thats what I like about your style. Easy to digest;~)

  2. Thanks so much Elynn!
    Already I’m seeing lots of things I could change or add to this post to make it better but in the spirit of surrendering to mediocrity and trying to break my perfectionism, I’m going to just let it be. At least for now.

    ~EJ

  3. Thanks Kevin, as always, great to see you on here too. I hope you will indeed see much more frequent notifications. I really have to figure out some better time mgmt b/c I am still taking classes, studying for MCAT, etc, but really need to make time for writing and blogging.

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