Perfectionism, Writing, and Life
Growing up I had one of those mom’s who hovered. She hovered over me when I was washing the dishes, cooking, cleaning, doing homework, etc., and without her ever uttering a word I felt criticized. I splashed too much water when I was washing dishes, I needed to turn the heat down–cooking it too fast, I missed a spot, I spelled something wrong or added or subtracted or multiplied or divided wrong…Some of that is normal parenting, some of it was my mother’s need to do things her way and to have everyone else do it her way because that was the only right way/correct way. (She’s not as bad now, age has mellowed my mother… )
With so much hovering, and backseat cooking, cleaning, etc I ended up feeling like I couldn’t do anything right, that I wasn’t good enough, and that you had to do things a certain way or it wasn’t the right way. As a parent we try to teach our kids right and wrong, how to do things, and even more importantly we are supposed to teach them to find their way in the world and learn how to be a responsible, independent, caring, moral, and successful adult. I figure my mom got most of those right with me, but what she also did was raise someone who was taught that perfectionism, even if it wasn’t called that, is the only way you get things done right, at least in a manner of speaking.
Unfortunately or fortunately–depending on how you look at it, now that I’m older, and my kids are grown, I find myself sounding more and more like my mother, most of the time it’s just in my head, but I often find myself saying, “Don’t splash so much water all over the sink,” or “If you do it this way it’ll save you time, effort, etc” or “If you do it that way it’s going to take twice as long,” or “Why are you doing it that way, you should…” It’s the strangest thing when I catch myself doing it or when one of my children, or my husband, points out that I sound like my mother. I’ve never wanted to be that way, not the hovering thing, which to me equates judgment and criticism.
Lately, I’ve noticed that I am doing it to myself when I write. That little voice in the back of my head that whispers, “You’re not doing it right, look at all of those words you splashed on the page, they’re not right, it’s not right, you’ve done it wrong… [or] you’re doing it all wrong, you should be…”
I know that part of it is a need for control. a part of it is perfectionism, and a small part of it is insecurity. When someone does dishes differently than you do as long as the outcome is the same what difference does it make how they do them–so long as the dishes are clean it really shouldn’t matter. And yet, every time someone helps me with the dishes or does the dishes I find myself looking at all of the splashed water around and on the sink and faucet, noticing whether they are using hot water (God forbid you should wash dishes in my Momma’s house with cold or lukewarm water), or if you use too much soap or not enough soap…and I cringe because there is the part of me that wants to jump in and do the dishes the “right” way, or to tell them “you’re not doing it right,” or “stop splashing the water all over the place” or something else equally critical. And it’s not just the dishes, it comes up with laundry, sweeping and mopping, vacuuming, dusting the furniture, cooking, or hell, even how you sit on the furniture, or how far or close you are to the television, or driving (don’t get me started on the driving thing, so glad that my dad taught me how to drive and not my mom).
Don’t get me wrong, my mother is a wonderful, caring, strong woman who had a hard childhood, went through the tragic loss of losing a husband when she was only 28 years old with a 7 year old and a 4 year old, and then later on met someone and fell in love, and who said when he was going to marry my mom that he wasn’t just marrying her, he was marrying all of us and he meant that–we were a package deal. But my mom is nitpicky. She’s funny about her home, her domain. She grew up without, and once she became an adult she treasured every single thing she worked for, was given, etc. She didn’t own her own pair of shoes or coat until she was 19 years old and bought them herself, she got hand me downs from older siblings or from the church or from a charitable organization–as one of the oldest of ten kids being raised by a single mother, with an alcoholic father who never paid a dime of child support, my mother became a caretaker and the second in command/woman of the house at an early age. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for her, but like all of us my mom has flaws and it seems I’ve either inherited them through nature or nurture.
I have to admit though, I’m harder on myself than on others. I am way too critical of myself. Had my mom not taught me that there are certain ways to do thing, some better some just your own way, and also been taught to think for myself, I wouldn’t have known later on as an adult that I could do things one way and as I got more experience doing it I’d eventually fine tune how I do it so that it was the right way for me, that I could do it the way I was taught but watch how others do it and learn from all of it and find my own way. In practice, remembering that there is more than one way to do things is not as easy as it is in theory though. I can remind myself over and over again that just because I don’t hardcore outline, or just because I don’t write by the seat of my pants, doesn’t mean I won’t be able to write a good, hopefully great, novel. I can remind myself that I might write faster or slower than someone else, or that I might need a story board, or I might need in depth character sketches, but what it all boils down to is finding a process that works for me and fine tuning it so that it works well.
Hearing my mother’s voice in my head sometimes keeps me aware of how important it is to strive to be the best you can be, to do things to the best of your own ability even if it means you have to splash some water all over the sink to get there. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those people who has an immaculate house, I’m too creative and distracted, not to mention the fact that I function better with color, clutter, and a bit of creative chaos around me, but my kitchen and bathrooms are usually clean and would (most of the time, unless I fall asleep reading or get into the writing zone) pass even my mom’s inspection. However, even though I am creative, distracted, and chaotically clutter and chaos (I imagine a female Linus walking around with a pen and a notebook instead of a blanket) I am also my mother’s child and when it gets to be too much my OCD kicks in and the house gets clean from top to bottom and organized–it might not stay that way for long, because me or my laid back husband will inevitably leave a cup on the end table, or leave our jacket on the back of the chair, or our dirty clothes on the floor instead of putting them in the hamper, or I’ll leave a book or a few books, or watercolor pencils, or my husband will leave his guitar propped against the couch… Our home is lived in and we’re happy.
I’m grateful for my mother and all that she taught me. That little voice that yells at me to get it right, to do it right, to keep trying until I’ve got it perfect or as perfect as it can get helps keep me striving to do better. I just have to remember that “being happy doesn’t mean that everything is perfect–it means that you’ve decided to look past the imperfections,” and for me it also means just being the best me I can be and forgiving myself and others when they splash water all over my sink.