A blank page has a terrible glow, its unearthly grayish white pulsing at you, waiting. I used to sit there staring back, mesmerized, paralyzed. One day a coworker shoved me aside—we were collaborating on a newsletter—and just. started. typing. Words clattered from his fingers, made whole sentences, then paragraphs, and he moved them around and then deleted half of them and tried some more and deleted everything and started over, did this again and again, like we were codebreakers testing solutions.
I had an editor who was just as breezy, sprinkling the copy with TKs (the perversely misspelled acronym for copy still “to come”).
This would be the place to say I learned from those guys, except that I still hesitate, overthink, stop to look stuff up. What they did teach me was that it is okay to just dive in, knowing you can fix it later. It is okay to be messy, incomplete, imperfect.
The word “perfect” pops out of magazine covers and websites and ads, promising the ultimate wedding, patio, dinner party, garden, cold brew, fried chicken, tropical vacation, whatever. It makes me shudder. Who needs perfection? We are flawed from the get-go. Mothers made neurotic by fascist childrearing experts have to be reminded that “good enough” parenting will be exactly that. People who keep going back to their cosmetic surgeon for more procedures have to be gently referred to a therapist. How you were born is good enough, too. So is losing every softball game but having fun as you do, painting something not quite recognizable, singing off-key, forgetting, failing.
Once we believe that, we can relax and throw the spaghetti against the wall, brainstorm with a drunkard’s ease, take chances. “Learn from your mistakes,” our elders insisted sternly, when really what we needed to do was learn to make mistakes. Judson Brewer, a Brown University neuroscientist and psychiatrist, points out that being curious and open reduces anxiety. “Tightness, rigidity, and a narrow view are all associated with contraction,” he says. “But curiosity and openness tend to bring about lightness and freedom.”
Politics has tightened me up these last few years; I can feel the constriction, my unwillingness to grant any credence to the extremists dominating the conversation. When Arundhati Roy came to accept the St. Louis Literary Award last month, I found myself blurting a question at the cocktail reception: How did she avoid, even as she called out injustice and outrage, the sort of anger that turns people rigid?
She gave an amused little smile and told me that her friends in various political movements are extraordinarily funny; that they laugh hard together, a gallows humor that keeps them pliable. She described a literary event in India that was sabotaged by right-wingers: they jumped onstage and started destroying things all around her, wreaking havoc. Confident that they would not dare harm her physically in such a public forum, she turned to the audience and said dryly, “I hired them.”
To think that fast on your feet, you have to be loose, willing to take a risk, willing to keep going if you fail. In the end, it is less dangerous than trying to dot every i, anticipate every objection, please every critic. We make lousy choices when we are trying to cover all bases, check off every box, finish as soon as we can.
George Saunders writes about that impulse, which he sees in his MFA workshop all the time. One amazing writer put together a gorgeous short story but, uncertain how to resolve a steamy scene, made a previously unmentioned teakettle boil. “The woman went inside, the sexual energy went poof, the man went home,” Saunders recalls. Workshop members critiqued that teakettle mercilessly, but Saunders, in his infinite compassion, listened to the writer stammer that she “wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted to have happen in that scene’ and realized that the teakettle was not a mistake at all. “It was a placeholder—a kind of ‘To Be Determined’ sign, the subconscious’s way of saying, ‘I know this is important and I don’t want to screw it up. Can I get back to you?’”
(That is the same advice wise people give to those of us who get rattled when invited to do something we would rather not. Stall. Say you will decide later and let them know. Once you buy yourself time, proportion settles. You can hear yourself think, and you can give your response with clarity and kindness instead of stammering some flustered nonsense, as I do.)
Saunders calls teakettle devices “avoidance moments.” Places that are still rough, patched, vague, or illogical. This is not confined to fiction; our whole lives are full of avoidance moments. Just as good editors spot them in a manuscript, spouses and children and bosses and best friends spot them in our words and actions. When I am criticized, I want to have the wisdom to reply, “Yes, that’s the part I still need to work on!” instead of mustering excuses. In one of his inimitable lists of advice, Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired, points out that “the best way to untangle a knotty tangle is not to ‘untie’ the knots, but to keep pulling the loops apart wider and wider. Just make the mess as big, loose and open as possible. As you open up the knots they will unravel themselves.”
He may mean this literally, but it works as metaphor. So does Saunders’ remark that stories come in waves. They are not just written, they are revised and revised and revised again. Type, delete, change, type, delete again. Other challenges come in waves, too, and we try to catch them, then let them recede and wait to try again. Arguments need not be won decisively and immediately; often they need not be won at all. They can be tabled, returned to in a calmer state. But we are always in such a rush for resolution, completion, proof of our own perfection. Because we pressure ourselves and one another, we also put implicit pressure on our leaders: fix it now. Do not dare say you are waiting to see how the situation unfolds or you need more information or there is no perfect solution—those grown-up responses will sound cowardly and tentative to an audience schooled in now.
Working out a problem, the subconscious needs our help, Saunders remarks, “and what it needs for us to do, just now, is have faith. And wait…. Be O.K., for now, with its apparent imperfection…. Keep coming back to that place, with affection and hope, until it relents and pops into clarity.”
Keep coming back. Keep revising. Keep trying, learning, changing. The word “process” is annoying as hell but applies to almost everything.
Watching somebody lift from a bridge exercise into a backbend, I groaned and said, my tummy clutching with an anxiety leftover from grade school gym classes, “I can’t do that.” Next time I might say, “I can’t do that yet.” Or I might try, and fall, and laugh.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.