Confront your awkward missteps and cringeworthy moments and set your writing free.
By Elizabeth Cutright
My friend Tracey has this great story I often make her repeat because it represents one of the fundamental human frailties: shame. When Tracey was a young girl – I think around seven or so – she was sent on her own to live in Germany for a summer with some family friends. While overall it was a fun and exciting adventure, Tracey still blushes when she remembers one particular faux pas.
Her hosts also had a young daughter – Heidi – and Tracey looked to her foreign friend for clues on to behave in this strange and confusing environment where everyone spoke German, and the Berlin wall still loomed in the distance: quite a change from the sunny beaches of Southern California.
One evening, the family was throwing a dinner party, and Tracey and Heidi were on hand to greet the guests as they arrived. When one couple appeared with a wrapped package of food, Heidi jumped up and lightly touched the container asking, “what’s in there?”
Tracey, ever cognizant of the need to fit in and behave appropriately, imitated her friend, inquiring about the contents while also jumping in the air and “lightly” touching the container. Except Tracey’s touch was a little heavier than her friend’s, and she put a dent the container’s wrapping. Quickly and brusquely, she was reprimanded in German for her clumsiness.
A little moment, but one that as children we’ve all experienced: that awkward misstep that triggers a stranger’s reproach. It’s an instance of vulnerability that broadcasts to the entire world exactly how “uncool” and imperfect we are.
Much like the way muscles seize around a wound, the drive for (or focus on) perfectionism tightens us up and prevents us from exploring painful pasts and psychological injuries.
When we relive these shameful memories – retell the stories to friends or get a sudden flashback every time we see a strudel – we experience that humiliation and that awkwardness all over again. I call this getting “the cringes,” and sometimes they are so nausea-inducing I find myself shaking my head to make the memories go away.
In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott likens the avoidance of painful memories to the desire for perfectionism. Much like the way muscles seize around a wound, the drive for (or focus on) perfectionism tightens us up and prevents us from exploring painful pasts and psychological injuries.
“In some cases, we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us,” says Lamott. “They keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways. They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way.”
One of the most common pieces of advice I’ve come across when it comes to writers block or the fear of the page is to treat my endeavors as if they are the efforts of a loved one. We don’t taunt and belittle the efforts of our friends, so why are we so easy to critique ourselves? Why are we so stuck on perfectionism?
“Seeking value in ourselves, we look to others for assurance,” explains Julia Cameron in The Right to Write. Unfortunately, seeking outside validation is a sure path to misery and doubt. “If what we are doing threatens them,” explains Cameron, “they cannot give it.”
“Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking in inventiveness and playfulness and life force.”
So instead of looking outside of ourselves for validation, we must look within. We need to develop a compassionate companionship with our creative selves. We must be okay with being awkward and strange.
Exposing your imperfections brings the reader closer and gets them on your side. There’s power in honesty, and revealing mistakes humanizes the author and makes your characters relatable. Those rare moments of vulnerability engage the reader and foster a connection between the work and the audience.
After all, we don’t want to read books written by robots. Only the divine can achieve perfection. For the rest of us, life is about the mistakes we overcome, the lessons we learn and the insights delivered to us by the struggles we engage in every day.
“Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking in inventiveness and playfulness and life force,” warn Lamott who reminds us, “when we were children…we needed to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here – and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.”
So when the cringes stop you in your tracks, just remember Lamott’s advice, ““Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper.”
- Overcoming Doubts and Doldrums (thedailycreativewriter.wordpress.com)
- Fail, Fumble and Fall – but make sure to get it all on paper. (thedailycreativewriter.wordpress.com)