Over the weekend, I got together with a colleague to drink nuclear-strength coffee and grouse about our writing-intensive summer plans: deadlines, uncertainty, anxiety. He mentioned the chapter “Shitty First Drafts” from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
When I got home, I dug out my copy,which I’ve returned to multiple times over the last dozen years, and read through that chapter again. It’s short, and I recommend you read the whole book (brisk and warm, like a good mentor), but the next chapter, “Perfectionism,” is what always punches me in the face:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive believe that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
Obviously, she’s talking specifically about writing, and I “know” (but cannot seem to learn) that perfectionism and writing are chalk and cheese. But I’ve repeatedly read that paragraph over again, and I think it’s one of those things that warrants tattooing on the underside of my eyelids, with an amendation that makes it even more useful to me (pace Ms. Lamott):
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a freely chosen life.
Of course, most women have real, material oppressors (people, lack of resources or education, health challenges, etc.) that one can’t just choose away, but for most of our readership, I would guess that perfectionism, “the voice of the oppressor”–or what I’ve elsewhere called “the Patriarch in Your Head”–does its own number on us. The pressure to be the perfect mother, student, professional, partner, example of womanity, is enough to make one insane. A lot of that pressure originates from the outside, but (in my case at least) a lot of it is something that I’ve digested and ultimately decided upon: this is how it’s done. This is only how it is done.
So, as I launch into a big project and come face to face with that voice that spits venom and assures me I’m capable of accomplishing nothing but crap, I’m going to try to remember that the voice is not “The Truth Teller” (my tendency), but The Oppressor. The Patriarch. Maybe Rush Limbaugh, or Dick Cheney, or some other loathsome old misogynist shitweasel, telling me that I will FAIL, with the sole intent of causing me to fail.
Writing is my battlefield, and it’s easy to think, sitting alone at my desk, that my academic, not-explicitly-feminist writing is not part of my feminism. Wrongo-dongo. I really believe that everything I do is part of my feminism, and learning to write, and to keep writing, and to kick in the metaphorical teeth those who want me to tremble and quail is, too.