Perfectionism, according to writer Anne Lamott in her Bird by Bird (a book beloved of many writers) is ‘the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people … a mean, frozen form of idealism … while messes are the artist’s true friend …’
Lamott’s idea is very close to Anthony Storr’s, in his book The Dynamics of Creation, (published in the 1970s) which I read in the mid-1980s and it became a ‘bible’ to me for a while. Storr explains how the artist, encountering the messiness of human life, sorts it into making sense, and a useful statement, by pattern-making. Non-creatives, he claims, merely hate mess. They want only to clear it up, and tidy it away. Some non-creatives will even solve their angst and desire to clear it up by ‘acting out …’, usually destructively, sometimes violently. Creatives look at, or into, mess, consider it, begin playing around with ideas about how to make something out of it, and end up with a piece of art …
Though it’s hard to explain the process … writing, painting … creation is a process, and the raw materials are our experiences of the world … experts in neurology or psychology might try to analyse it, but when taken to pieces, that’s what anything becomes – pieces. The jigsaw must be put together to make sense. The artist is sorting, then putting stuff together.
The most obvious in my experience is the poetry I made from the painful end of a relationship – some of it even humorous. I don’t write poetry often – hardly at all – but at that time, poetry began to flow, and the flow was a path to – or perhaps more like a river of – healing. I’d never claim to be alone here – it’s a common experience.
Which is a long way round to looking briefly at this week’s News. Perfectionism is an enemy when it suggests that life can be perfect. This is by nature an imperfect world, but it can be a balanced world. Where although there is suffering there is also joy, although there is betrayal there is also faithfulness, although there is drought and flood both the rain and the heat of the sun are necessary for life.
Perfectionism, pulled out of shape, becomes obsession. The temptation to believe that if this or that were not so, our lives would be easier, we’d more more wealthy, have more leisure, the country would run smoothly, the trains run to time, the doctor have next-day appointments, the school system would be fairer to everyone. As Lamott says, ‘a mean, frozen form of idealism…’ with the emphasis on mean idealism. Obsessed, the perfectionist idealist loses the concept of moderation, and embraces an impatient inability tolerate the views of others.
Here is the irony: patterns are made from the messes of life, and it is even possible that perfect hate can be overcome when we come together, first in shock and sorrow, but then to think … to examine ourselves … to rebuild a community determined to make the mess into a meaningful pattern of better things.
Which could become the stuff of realistic hope… ?
(Link stories from the BBC News (Oxford) Website and BBC News Website)
So why do I write about day to day life and crises among contemporary families … rather than crime, mystery, or fantasy …?