Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Washing Those Harpies Right Out of My Hair

(This was my guest post at Write Stuff last Saturday)
My personal nemesis is perfectionism. My Moby Dick if you will--tho it is more like a swarm of harpies than a great white whale and they didn’t abscond with any of my limbs nor wreak any other havoc upon my physical being, nor do they hide themselves in the deep abyss of either ocean or sky, playing a diabolical hide-and-seek game. I wish! If they would but remove themselves to the underbelly of the clouds, I could possibly let the grating of their incessant berating be subsumed by the susurrus of wind and rain or the white noise of an off-air TV station. But no! They must hover and fly about my face so that I feel their hot, foul breath on my eyelids as their screeches fill the interstices of my eardrums with scorn-fed laughter and they fill all the bandwidth of my brain with invective.

I’ve been plagued by these hell-spawned haranguers since as far back as my memories go, since well before kindergarten, well before I could either read or write. They disrupt many areas of my life but none so much as writing. My Mom tells the story of my earliest adventures with crayon and paper around a year old. She says that I was the only baby or toddler she ever witnessed who never scribbled. I drew little circles about the size of dimes. They weren’t perfect circles--some weren’t closed and those that were often sported a tail or two where the line met itself, like small stemmed fruit, but they resembled grapes more than they did cherries. I’ve seen these early efforts--and effort is the precise word for them as they exude a miasma of intensity and focus and unmet expectations. Mom remembers how I would point at these marks one by one uttering a syllable or two of baby-babble. So resembling the way she read to me by pointing at the words in my storybooks as she spoke them, she is sure I was trying to tell a story. If that is true, then I’ve been a storyteller since before I could walk, let alone talk. But I suspect that I was scolding the fruits of my labor, giving voice to the harpies already nesting in my curls and shaking their sharp-nailed fingers at my nose.

My memories of the physical task of writing begin at around age three. I was still drawing those circles but I was also carefully copying alphabet letters and even short words off of whatever nearby source presented itself. But this was still more like drawing than writing. I was about four when I started writing letters to my grandparents by copying the words my mother had carefully written down as I composed the sentences aloud. It would take me a few minutes to compose those several sentences, my mother a few minutes longer to produce a clean copy, correctly formatted and punctuated but it would take me hours to produce the finished letter. I still remember those efforts--the painstaking drawing of each letter, the oh-so-disobedient pencil, the erasures that left smears, the starting over, and over and over. My first memory of writer’s cramp is from this time. My first conscious memory of having stories to tell comes from about this same time too. But I could never seem to coordinate the act of imagining the story with the mechanics of making marks on the paper. By the time I got a handful of words on the page, the fragile images and sound-track of the story would have been shredded by the dread harpies claws and gnashing teeth.

Once I taught myself to type at age eleven, I was able to hold those howling harridans at bay long enough to get whole paragraphs on the page and I would build my stories or essays one sentence or paragraph at a time like laying bricks. But it was impossible to proceed to the next sentence or paragraph or page as long as I perceived any imperfections. If I needed to insert words or phrases or make corrections, I would have to start the page over even knowing that the threads of the story might vanish by the time I got back to where I left off. This made it so tempting to just sit and stare at the pristine white page in the typewriter’s carriage, letting the story play out on it like a movie screen. This is what ‘writer’s block’ was for me. It was never about having nothing to say, no story to tell or no ideas. No, those hovered about my head like flocks of butterflies. But their delicate wings could not survive in the searing gusts generated by those leather-winged fiends.

It was about the time that I was introduced to word-processors that I came to understand that there were two distinct tasks involved that I had been conflating: creation and communication. Creation is chaos unfolding into complex beauty and it is messy. Communication must adhere to rules of order agreed upon by a community so that individual minds can be understood by one another. Carelessness and flouting of the rules increases the chance of misunderstanding. There may have been a story behind my carefully inscribed circles, but if so, I was the only one who knew the language, the grammar, the punctuation and that knowledge probably did not survive my next nap. So there was no communication, no sharing, no meeting of the minds and hearts that the best stories can conduce.

This was meant as a preamble for sharing the methods I learned over the last twenty years to tame those harassing harpies, to wash them right out of my hair and transmogrify them into feather-winged angels playing harps and wearing circlets of butterflies in their hair. But I’ve run out of space and time so I am going to leave you with the little poem I wrote in the late eighties--about the time that I made the breakthrough described above:

Crucify the Critic

To write and not worry if all is spelled right,
To write and not think of the good and the bad of it,
To write and not judge, neither budge
A finger to backspace or erase,
Thinking only of white space,
Fingers flying like birds, to fill it with words-
With thoughts sublime or absurd,
With plots simple or complex,
With dreams shallow or deep,
With observations, inspirations, aspirations,
To make someone-if only me-laugh or weep,
To make their brows perplex,
To slake their verbal thirst
For soothing nouns and zesty verbs.
Wandering solitary in thicketed woods,
Wooing amid airy leaf-lace that enchanting face,
That muse, unnamed, neglected, un-embraced, until
That harassing harpy who begrudges-even sabotages-
The art of it, is banished from the heart of it.
So crucify the critic writer, and write!

(c) 1988 by Joy Renee

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