Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is There an Antibiotic for Perfectionism?

The internet and I aren't getting along lately. I snap at it, and it snaps back, harder. I expect too much of it, and it disappoints me. I keep crawling back, like a fool, because I need it, but what I need more is to separate our work relationship from our emotional relationship and put all my efforts into the former. This process continues, haltingly, hurtfully.

Isn't this beautiful? I look at this picture when the internet beats me up and I feel sad.
I'm one of those little lights on the other side of the mountain. Click to embiggen. 

I've had middling luck with books lately. I was galloping along through two a week, or thereabouts, and then I read half of an uninteresting one and screeched to a halt. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I started Between the World and Me, which is quite short, but which I still haven't finished. I keep taking deep breaths between paragraphs, and I have quit a little over halfway through and can't seem to start again. Not just because of the subject matter, and the emotional difficulty wrought by my various histories held next to it, but because the writing is brilliant.

There's such a difference between good writing and full-on brilliant writing, and I always forget it until I am faced with the latter. Like an incandescent lamp (beautiful) against the morning sun (staggering). It's too much to take in quickly. The book, in multiple ways, is itself too much. Too painful, too many ideas too challenging to confront, too beautiful, too angry-making, too heartfelt, too guilt-inducing, too bright a star. I think this is part of the point, to overwhelm me, but that doesn't make it easier to read.

I've made an attempt to write every day, per my New Year's resolution, but I've written in six of 26 days in January. That is failure in any jurisdiction. I examined my failure this morning and came to a terrible conclusion: I don't want to finish the Ceremonials project.

In doing the math, I found that I could be done with a draft in maybe two or three weeks if I wrote a half-hour every day. I couldn't believe it, that this thing I've been putting off and chewing on and figuring out for going on two years could be over so quickly if I just sat down at the notebook for a ridiculously small amount of time each day (much less time than I waste on my abusive boyfriend the internet), but no matter how I rejiggered the numbers, the math came out the same. I did this math six days ago, and in those six days I wrote zero times.

This is an upsetting habit I've developed in the last few years: stopping right before the finish line. I do it at work, at school, at home, everywhere. From laundry to research papers. It's when I'm almost done, when the remaining work is goddamn negligible, that I feel the strongest urge to quit. This was not my work pattern when I was younger, not in my secondary school years nor in my college years nor in my twenties. I think it's some kind of adaptive mutation of that old foe perfectionism, but I don't know how to stamp it out. MRSA defeats state-of-the-art hospital environments, after all.

Because I could be done in less than a month, could start on what I consider (this time) the exciting work of rewriting most of what I've written, and I'm remembering every day that I'm supposed to write every day, and I'm still not goddamn doing it, the only conclusion I can come to is that I don't want to finish. When that thought shot through my mind, I immediately agreed with it.

I think it's because I've put a lot of feelings into the success of this project, even though what constitutes that success is self-defined. If I finish, I might look back and find that I have not succeeded. If it's unfinished, I don't have this problem.

Yeah, that's perfectionism, all right. Shitballs.

In other news, school starts today. I think I've bitten off more than I can chew - three classes - but I have pretty much never regretted doing so. I'm off to explore.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Postmodern Poetics Offers More Questions than Answers

Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society: part of the culminating poetics paper I wrote for my workshop class last semester. These poetics papers are a critical assignment for this professor, with whom I've now taken two classes; she keeps complimenting me on them, but all they do is tread the same ground I've been walking in this blog for years. I have lots of practice writing about my writing.

The most recent paper came out somewhat differently, and I've been thinking of posting it here for weeks. It seems to belong here, even if a lot of the context around it is missing. Since I haven't gathered my thoughts on writing very well recently (I'm okay, I just keep butting up against bad timing and other things to occupy me), here it is.


Rachel Blau DuPlessis says a poetics gives us permission to continue. The 38 women in that workshop in Ojai: many if not most needed permission. They needed to be told that they deserved to take up space, that their stories were worth hearing, that they were loved, that their voices were beautiful. I did not need to hear any of this. I do not need permission to continue. I am continuing; it’s not a matter of deserve or desire. It is. Like the sunrise. Like the smog.


Filmmaker --> writer. That’s how I see my progression. My poetics was once obsessive recordation of eyelines, “was verbing” to give the sense of the reader having walked in on a scene, blocking, incessant narration from over the shoulder of the narrator. Film is how I learned to see, and seeing is how I thought writing worked. So for years I mashed the two together, film and language, and nothing I wrote was good.

Now I am interested in Woolfian and Proustian and Faulknerian sentences, and the infinite variety of English syntax, but I don’t know if I integrate a genuine philosophy of language into what I write. The Ceremonials project might help me to answer that. In the meantime, I listen. Carefully.

That goes for the conversation I want to have with other writers. I am not interested in political writing, except for the personal being political. I am not interested in the Great American Novel, or in experimentalism that is mainly, in one professor’s word, peacockery. I am interested in placing my work in a tradition, but I’m befuddled by what that tradition is, whether it is the Biblical and Roman and Greek stories that informed the entire Western canon until the mid-twentieth century, or…not. I really do think it’s a problem of American writers of this age, that we/they have no foundation from which to work, no agony of Bloomian influence. Should I get myself a classical education? Should I call the strange twentieth century itself my bedrock?

I am listening for an answer. I read and I listen. But there is no baritone note beneath so much contemporary American writing, no might that feels as elemental as Melville or Faulkner or even (George) Eliot.

We Americans, we are orphans. That’s fortunate, as I, a military daughter, am an orphan of place.


I’ve just reread my first strike at this poetics paper. I like it well enough. I wrote about film and language being my weft and warp (the linen is my life); later I found these words in What Our Speech Disrupts [my professor's book about writing]. The chapter on poetics convinced me to take the longer view in this essay instead.

Let me restate that permission to continue is not what I require. A dim understanding of what I do well and what I do better hampers me, often. Truth, and what is for me a maddening liminal space between nonfiction and fiction, is almost certainly my triggering subject, although I have not yet satisfactorily written about it in nine damn years.

I thought I wanted to write about pop culture, but I’m not sure of that anymore. Only inasmuch as John Haskell does, I suppose. I write probably too much about violence against women, and I doubt that will change. Hamlet is sewn into my synapses. Do I possess a missing Derridean center in the place where literary tradition ought to be?

Friday, January 1, 2016

Resolute, 2015 Edition

Every year, I post last year's New Year's resolutions with a short analysis of how well I think I succeeded at them, and then I post this year's. So, here are last year's (in greater detail here):

1. Your life is messy. Stop trying to neaten it for explanation or consumption. The most successful of these resolutions. I posted whatever I wanted on Facebook. I made Yes videos with no consistency. I told people about the jobs I've had without worry that they might not believe me (because I've had a lot of weird jobs). I left the apartment a total disaster for weeks at a time. I really leaned into the messy life. This made me happy. And I think it was one of my great lessons for 2015: that nothing terrible happens when you admit your life is messy. Instead, the pressure lifts and you just are.

2. Cut back on complaint by 30%. Mmmm, not sure. I think I was more conscious of complaint in the first half of the year, but in the fall I lost awareness of it until I got tired of hearing myself complain about school, at which point I remembered this resolution and did better at shutting up. But...yeah, not accomplished ideally.

3. Make a serious start on the wikibook. No. Not in the least. In fact, I fell into kind of a significant illness because of the failure to do this. So it's OK with me that I did not fulfill this resolution. I wrote some things this year, but I also lowered and altered my expectations about writing, so this one is kind of mu.

4. Cook. Partial fail, because of the theory class that consumed my life from September to November. We ate a lot of Trader Joe's food this fall. But I cooked (a lot) for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I'm pretty sure I cooked the vast majority of the year's meals.

5. Stop constantly reviewing yourself. Fail. Fail fail fail. I noticed the habit a lot more, and it's astonishing how much time I waste doing this. I need to figure out how to stop.

6. Read more poetry. Fail. I have no excuse and no explanation. I don't know enough poets IRL, so I get a lot fewer recommendations for poetry than for novels. But still. Shame on me.

7. Maybe throw a party. Fail. I'll lean on the depression and the theory class as excuses. I could not have managed the party I wanted to throw in late October, not at all, but I wish I could've.

To be perfectly clear: there is no negative judgment in the word "fail" above. Just an assessment of whether I did these things or not. Objectively, I mostly did not. That's okay, because 2015 was not a normal year.

In the past, my resolutions have [unintentionally?] set the tone for the year. A lot of what I learn and go through - my interior life - tends to have something to do with what I planned to fix or meditate upon over the course of that year. In 2015, that was not true at all. I had to form all-new philosophies about friendship, feminism, education, my father, my future, love, the word deserve, yes and no, and power. I asked what am I meant to do more times this year than I have since I was a teenager. I coped with what amounts to a death in my immediate family. I cried and I despaired and I lost my way in a very dark forest, and I came through it convinced of the core of steel that's within me, and none of that had anything to do with these resolutions.

There was also greater joy than I can possibly communicate. There was bigger love, with more unconditionality, than I knew existed. There was writing, communion on the page, so deep that the ocean blushed. There was adventure and there was generosity and there was a goddamn new Star Wars movie.

I have no idea what's ahead in 2016. I almost don't want to make a list of things to fix or meditate upon, because the prior year's turned out so irrelevant that I'm afraid I'll look through this year's list in December and say wrong again, Kat. (Again, no judgment, but it would be nice if the list was helpful.)

Then again, I love making these resolutions. I love thinking of them as yearlong meditations rather than objectives to snap one's ruler on one's wrist about. So here are a few.

1. Don't get dead. I am revisiting an old resolution here, one that's served me really well. I quote it:
Keep reading. Keep watching movies. Keep going to operas. Keep writing notes to loved ones. Keep donating to Kickstarters. Keep going on dates with Matt. Keep loving California. Keep living. Don't get dead.
2. Throw things away. My pack-rattiness has started to creep back, three years after moving from a two-bedroom home into a wee one-bedroom apartment. There's too much stuff in here. I need to be more merciless about letting it go.

3. Spending and saving are both okay, but balancing them is even better. I've taken steps toward improved money management in the past year, and letting go of some of the feelings I have about money. But there's a long way to go. When to splurge and when to save, I still haven't mastered.

4. Get off the internet. Speaks for itself, I think.

5. Explore the middle. Something my therapist told me that I never previously realized is that I have a very black-and-white view of my own self. Not of other people - I'm quite willing to let others live in liminal spaces and be many things - but of myself. I either suck or I'm awesome. I'm overproductive or I'm hopelessly lazy. This goes for writing, too: I'm perplexed and frustrated by writing that's between fiction and nonfiction, because, in my mind, it's either true or not. The last thing I wrote for my workshop class lived in between, and I'm okay with that, and it amazes me to be okay with that. So I want to know more about the place in between extremes, how that place manifests in me.

6. Try writing every day. (Key word: try.) This semester I found myself once or twice having to write in half-hour chunks for a week or so in order to get going on a story before doing a marathon session on the subsequent weekend. I hated it, because writing for me is, as I've explained before, like getting immersed in another world. Going in there for such a short time just...sucks. But I started to feel this year as if writing was a mistress in another city. As if I only spent half or less of my time actually with her; time spent thinking about her, no matter how much, was hardly sufficient to maintain an actual relationship. So I want to try a half-hour every day, at least for a little while, and see what happens. It might turn into a half-hour every day except weekends, or a month of half-hours and then a month off, or something else. I don't know. I want to see what works, but I also want to get my volume of output up. I've finally learned my lesson about the virtue of producing a large volume of work and throwing most of it away, and the only thing to do with that lesson is to make more work.

7. Write it down. I lose so many ideas and observations by trying to hold them in my brain instead of putting them on paper. It's time to admit that my brain is not much better than a sieve and I need to start carrying a notebook. Like a beret-wearing Gauloises-smoking finger-popping beatnik. What's stopped me is the sense that most of what I write down will be stupid, or not actually helpful ("Oh, I don't need to write that down, I'll remember it / it's too petty"), but THIS IS WRONG and I need to really write things down, really. I lost what I remember as a pretty good idea only two nights ago because of this attitude.

8. A three-tiered goal resolution.

     First level: share some of the Ceremonials project either with my mentor professor or with a workshop class. I simply couldn't, this semester, but maybe next time.
     Second level: take writing (or perhaps yoga) workshops all four seasons. I have one for spring and one for fall, but that's two more to find, afford, and get to. One in June, one in December, ideally.
     Hardest level: teach a writing workshop. I have a good idea about what to teach, and I'm feeling like I'm ready to lead a room full of writers (or aspiring writers), but impostor syndrome is holding me back. What qualifications do I have to lead writing workshops? Who would come? Shouldn't I wait until I have my MA (in like 18 months, God willing)? Still, a little voice is whispering to me that I should try it and see what happens.

Doing all three of these would be amazing. But I won't beat myself up if I can't.

Happy New Year, everybody. Go fiercely into 2016. I trust you, so trust yourself. We're all hurtling through space at a million miles an hour, so really, what've you got to lose?