Monday, August 13, 2012

Loud, Ugly, Wild, Free

I was in my high school choir. I was a second alto. We had a pretty competitive choir program, packed to the brim with extremely talented singers. Was I one of them? Uh...not really. My voice is competent at best, the sort of voice that sounds good in a choir because it blends and there's very little vibrato, but not so great in solos. I also can't read music.

But I like to sing, so in high school I was also in a girls barbershop quartet and, what is more relevant to this story, I took voice lessons for four years. One of my biggest struggles in voice lessons, which should not surprise you at all if you know anything about me, was to loosen up. I tried to control my pitch and tone quality by bearing down as much as I could on my body and my voice, and, far from improving things, it made my tone quality and pitch worse.

My voice teacher, who was a patient man, devised many exercises that might help with this problem, and as I sat down to write today, I remembered one of them in particular. He told me to sing the scale as loudly as possible. As ugly as possible. He told me to go completely overboard, throw everything I had into it, without worrying about how awful it sounded or how loud it was or how "on" it was.

I sucked at this exercise. 

I do not willingly submit to error. No way, man. I am a perfectionist to the very core of my being. I scrutinize every single thing I do. That includes writing. That includes writing first drafts, which by their very nature are supposed to be shitty.

I use the word "shitty" because there's a wonderful chapter in Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird called "Shitty First Drafts." Here is a quote from it (emphasis mine):

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 belief 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.

Here are several truths that I know but simultaneously cannot convince myself of:

1. A first draft will always, always, always need to be revised, and possibly rewritten. This cannot be avoided.
2. Perfectionism harms the creative effort, not just because it impedes progress, but because it restricts the creativity itself.

Or, to put it simply: perfectionism actually makes your art (whatever it is) suck more.

So, hilariously, my attempts to make my first drafts perfect actually make my first drafts more shitty than they would have been if I had just loosened up and let myself be creative.

Case in point: I wrote Divergent with all the wild freedom of someone who believes that their writing will never be seen by anyone. I wrote Insurgent with all the neurotic controllingness of someone who is aware that their writing will be seen by people-- a lot of people.

Guess which one required more extensive revisions?

If you guessed Insurgent-- DING DING DING, you are correct!

If we can return to the vocal exercise for a moment: yes, I was terrible at it-- I was terrible at being terrible! Who knew? But I always found that after that exercise, when we moved on to something else, I sounded much better than before. Even the tiny amount I was able to loosen up made me so much better at singing. Basically, the louder and uglier I was able to be, the better my voice became.

The crazier and wilder and freer I am with my first drafts, the better they turn out.

I have known this for awhile, so I try to write by just letting the errors happen, but I think that's maybe not the right way to think about it, for me. For me, it doesn't really help to decide to write a shitty first draft and let that be the end of it, because it goes completely against my nature and the core of my person-- it's too hard for me, in other words, to just say "oh well. It's going to be bad." That means traveling too far away from who I am.

I think, instead, that I should try to make it as BIG and as LOUD and as CRAZY as possible. Just like in voice lessons, when I was honking out those notes as loudly and as comically ugly as possible, like a goose with a throat infection, and somehow, I found my way to something more beautiful. The trick for those of us who are such strong perfectionists that we can't even conceive of writing something deeply flawed on purpose is not embracing error but embracing something else: freedom.

This is true of every single creative effort. My mother is an artist, and I have watched her migrate away from careful, meticulous watercolors and a kind of internal desire to make things pretty, and toward a style that is nightmareish and, frankly, a little weird-- and it is so much more beautiful. And how many episodes of So You Think You Can Dance does a girl have to watch before she realizes that the brave, free dancers who are able to let go of perfect technique are the ones that make Nigel tear up-- the ones that create something truly genius?

We think, somewhere deep inside, that we are helping ourselves by being perfectionists, but what we are doing is squeezing ourselves so hard that barely any air can escape.

I, for one, would love to stop doing that, but it's not as easy as wanting it to happen, is it?

Part of it is finding a way to get lost in the work, I think. To submerge yourself in it and let it get messy and ugly and insane and oh my god no one should ever read this and why did I write that paragraph and this section is downright hilarious and what does that word even mean and this is ridiculous and this feels amazing and somehow, from a particular angle and in a peculiar way and maybe only to me, this is



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