I took a writing class over the summer. For six weeks each Thursday night from 6:00 to 9:00 I met with my classmates at the Writer House here in Charlottesville. We gathered to write and study creative nonfiction. On the first night our professor told us something that I’ve been mulling over ever since…
The word “essay” means “to try.”
I wish someone had told me that 20 or so years ago.
I’ve written a lot of essays in my life. The first one I remember was in third grade when we were practicing for the writing portion of the yearly standardized test. I wrote a “how-to” essay about making a sock puppet. Being the overachiever that I am, I took my assignment home, made a sock puppet and wrote step-by-step instructions as I crafted so my essay would be just…right.
Years later in college I hunched over a computer in the school lab and hammered out a twenty page paper from start to finish the morning it was due. I had so much coffee in my system and so much panic coursing through me that my heart was pounding and my hands were shaking.
Throughout my educational life (which was almost my whole life…so far at least) I was notorious for writing my essays and research papers at the very last minute. It wasn’t that I didn’t work on them until then, it was just that I couldn’t put anything on the paper until I was sure I had perfected every angle, idea, and argument. I always had to craft the metaphorical sock puppet before any words would come out onto the page.
As I rounded the last laps of school and headed toward the finish line of my last (I assume) graduation, I started to lose my edge a bit. The ideas I was working out and papers I was composing were more and more complex and were even more important to me to get right. I had the hardest time finishing papers for professors I particularly respected. I wanted to live up to their expectations and good opinion of me.
In a lot of ways I paralyzed myself with my perfectionism. For the first time in my life I missed a deadline and had to get an extension. It felt terrible. But I didn’t die. And my professor didn’t think less of me. Finishing that paper was excruciating. But I had to try. I got a one day extension and my roommate had to coach me to keep going all the way until the end. I just kept saying it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done. And it finally was. If I had removed some of the pressure off of myself and written in an exploratory, more relaxed way, earlier in the process I think I could have done it on time and well…but I had to learn a lesson the hard way.
Writing is my job now. I write this blog but I also I manage multiple other projects at once and keep my brain churning in a number of different directions. What I’ve learned from the tail-end of seminary is that I cannot leave everything until the day it is due. I have to get something out on the page earlier.
It’s hard, like working out a new muscle, but I have to try to let myself think on the page.
As I’m trying this out I’m finding my stress level to be much lower, and my enjoyment to be much higher. Editing and revising is actually my favorite part of writing, but I never gave myself enough time to enjoy this part of the process because I was too focused on getting things just right, right out of the gate.
I’m not just trying when I write, I’m also trying in some other areas of life, too. And as I do that I’m finding out that my perfectionistic tendencies weren’t unique to school assignments…
Communicating when my feelings are hurt is hard for me. My typical response is to shut down until I simply can’t hold everything in anymore…and then I melt down. But lately, I’ve been trying out different ways to say what I’m feeling. Sometimes my approaches work, sometimes they makes things worse…for a while at least. But I’m trying, and that’s something.
I’ve started working out at a boot camp here in town. I’m not very good at it. Turns out I have exercised induced asthma (yet another thing I would’ve loved to have known 20+ years ago when I was struggling to run laps in P.E. and couldn’t make the junior high basketball team because I had so little endurance…but…I digress). It also turns out that I cannot do a push-up. But y’all, I’m trying. I really didn’t want to go last night because it was cold and rainy and I was tired and emotionally exhausted, but I went and I couldn’t do everything, but I did a lot of things and my body is getting stronger. Not only is my body getting stronger, but I’m find my mind and stress are relieved when I push myself physically.
I’m also trying to figure out what foods make my body feel best. Sometimes best is best because it tastes good. Other times best is best because it doesn’t tear up my stomach or leave me with a runny nose. It’s a slow process, but one that I get to keep trying at every day, multiple times a day.
Little by little I am trying to rid my life of perfectionism. I’m trying to offer myself the grace to try and fail—in a lot of spaces. I’m trying to believe that I am loved for who I am…not for how good I am at what I do.
I’m finding a lot of freedom in this process. I’m discovering that my life can have a rhythm of exploration rather than simply pursuit of perfection. I’m still loved, even if I’m just trying…and maybe even failing.
What about you? Are you trying anything these days?