Rough Trade

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Perfectionism is a massive hurdle to creative work. The same impulse that is essential to editing, that moves you to check each line, fix up your prose, cut out every junky, nonsensical, messy bit, is the same drive that erases everything thorny and difficult.

In the impulse to perfect, smooth out and tidy up is a very seductive illusion of control. It’s an illusion, that you can control how anyone might read your work, how they might perceive you, or what your words will even say to them. Perfectionism throttles bravery.

The risk of all this effort at control is, of course, that your work can come off, at least to yourself, as a bit phony. You, the maker, know that you’re not saying what you want to say. I can read old work and see where I’ve turned away, where I didn’t push hard enough or at all. Coasted.

People can tell when you’re phony. They smell phoniness on a person like dogs smell fear. Sometimes you are so cloaked in layers of protection that you can’t discern your own truth. You can’t describe your struggle because you can’t look at it in the face, because so much seems to hinge on keeping yourself protected and protecting others. You walk around the truth in endless circles.

I used to avoid writing on here, and limited the blog to putting up posts that introduced articles and linked elsewhere. I felt everything that goes up with my name attached needed to be polished to the point of being unassailable, researched and fact-checked to death.

I erased old writing because it wasn’t good enough, or didn’t reflect what I thought I was capable of. I had the same bad habit on social media – posting and erasing, writing comments that really expressed how I felt, then erasing them. I was applying the same kind of thinking I’d taken to academic work and school to creative writing,

A fellow writer told me a story yesterday about filling out his thesis defense form:

The form asked for a list of influences, and it said “Texts Only.” So of course, half my list was other media. [My advisor] was perplexed at why I put the Velvet Underground as an influence. He asked what about them had influenced my work, and I said that they taught me you didn’t have to know how to play your instrument properly to make visionary music.

In other words, they are great because there is no polish whatsoever. There is something else.

I really love this. The “something else,” I think, is what everyone creating is trying to get at either obliquely or directly. The stumbling, falling, scraping and failing doesn’t need to be hidden. It’s better if it is in plain sight, printed, up online, up for you to see. I added some work from 2004 – 2009 up under the Archives section of the site yesterday, which is O.K. work, but doesn’t represent “me.” But that was me, then, and though not perfect, represents efforts and attempts.

I’d like to push where I usually would take out the eraser, and keep building on the gravelly, uneven foundation. Researching hypergraphia (the compulsive need to write) yesterday, I learned that some people feel compelled write after severe trauma and difficult childhoods, because it made them “feel like they had a soul.” And the soul is rough and uneven and breaking itself ever over, so true work would reflect that roughness and mess.

Telling the truth about yourself – that you might struggle daily, that you are afraid of the future, that you are lost in the past – is much harder than saying, I am fine. Everything is great, and I’m doing so well. The page is the one place you might feel safe telling the truth.

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