23 January 2009

When the Hell Are You Going to Be Perfect?

Are you doing this to yourself as well? Beating yourself up for every single thing that you should or should not have done? Thinking that you need to live up to someone else’s expectations. Filling up your daily schedule with unreasonable tasks because you don’t believe that you are acceptable just by the fact that you exist. There is no one else there in your head. OK, there is a voice that judges you all the time – you’re too lazy, too fat, not good enough – but you don’t have to believe it. My friend calls this voice a little owl. She imagines the bird sitting on her shoulder, spitting abuse at her and making her feel worthless. One day she got so tired of the little owl making this noise so she decided to make friends with it. She smiled at it, stroked it and told it to go to sleep. When you’re trying to be perfect all you’re doing is really missing out on life as it is. I have another animal metaphor for this – the hamster in the wheel syndrome. I have been pedalling there myself. Believe me. I was in such a hurry that I got out of breath, broke my little plastic wheel, dropped on the floor and realized – wow, I am still in my cage. I haven’t moved an inch.

I am writing a novel at the moment. It’s going to be a master piece. So says the little owl. And I usually fall for it.

An artist asked me recently how I can sustain the enthusiasm and dedication for such a long time that is needed to finish a novel. I told him that every writer needs to believe their book will be the best ever written to be able to plough on. When I said that, I immediately went into a writer’s block. What the hell did I do wrong? I had a perfect synopsis, I believed in my idea, the characters came alive and kept talking to me in my dreams. I talked about my plot with friends and they liked it. They said – uh, this is going to be big. So I smiled smugly. Every piece of the puzzle was there. It’s just that the paper remained white.

I couldn’t write. No word that came out of me was perfect enough. So I stopped bothering. I couldn’t even turn the computer on let alone look at the blank page. I was so overwhelmed by my doubt that I am not a real writer – real writers write, don’t they – that I managed to forget that I have actually written a few books in my life. So I started another project. Every day, I devoted some time to writing about why I wasn’t able to write, what was the point of writing, what was I if I wasn’t a writer, what would it be like when I became a real writer. The last topic brought about some pretty macabre pictures in my mind. Don’t laugh. The megalomaniac list of benefits that I would eventually reap as a real writer broke my heated wheel in which I was running myself into the ground. I remembered my grandfather’s funeral some twenty years ago. You should know that my surname in my mother tongue means ‘a writer’, which some people say is so obviously destiny at work – I just had to be a writer. I find it a joke today. Because I fell for this destiny business, and I tried too hard to justify it, the joke was on me. The little owl laughed heartily. So my grandfather Writer was buried in a small village, tucked away in the arid landscape of Dalmatian Hinterland. I was sitting on an old chair, carved from a single piece of wood, while a river of people gathered in front of the stone house. They told me these were all my relatives. And friends of the relatives. And people who were sent by those relatives who couldn’t travel from abroad to the funeral. There were more than a hundred people standing in a small rocky yard. Each came to express their condolences. Some said how I have grown since the last time they saw me and some introduced themselves there for the first time. Our family was enormous. My grandfather must have been a great man if he was able to gather so many people. A great Writer, I thought. One of the most ridiculous wishes on my megalomaniac list was to have as many people at the launch of my novel as the old Writer had at his funeral.

Stop. You said you wouldn’t laugh. This is what it’s like when the demon of perfectionism inhabits your head.

So the wheel broke and I finally looked up at the bars of my cage. I rested. It felt nice to stop, legs in the air. This is how I am doing my writing today. I’ve stopped believing in destiny and in master pieces. Each day, I write for 15 minutes. Sometimes, maybe half an hour if the rhythm really takes me. Whatever I put on the paper has absolutely no intention of being the best book ever written in the history of literature. Actually, when I sit at the desk, I tell myself – this is a crap draft of my novel, and I love it. Today, I don’t have to write anything better than that. And so, the little owl is finally fed and happily slumbering away.