Perfectionism in Motherhood, Cooking, and Writing

“As a cChild with bowlhild, my family’s menu consisted of two choices: take it or leave it.” — Buddy Hackett

Just about everyone who reads this smiles, but actually I think they should be screaming. Either/or choices and black-and-white thinking serve none of us well. Either you get an A+ or you are a total failure. Your book is either #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list and wins both the Nebula and Hugo Awards, or it is an abysmal flop. Your marriage is either the stunning example to all humankind or it’s crap. Exaggerated like that, it’s easy to see the ridiculousness of perfection-or-nothing. But how many times do we see ourselves and our lives through a perfection-tinted lens?

Years ago, when my children were small, I agonized over my many, many lapses in maternal perfection. At times, I was sure that a single moment of inattention or crabbiness had ruined my beautiful babies forever. A friend (who, interestingly enough, was childless herself) gave me a book in which I read that it isn’t necessary to be a perfect mother, only a good-enough mother. Was I good enough? Even in my darkest moments, I knew that I was. For all the black marks, I could look at a thousand times more of games played, books read aloud, lullabies sung, trips to the zoo, mommy and me classes in everything from gymnastics to piano, walks along the beach… (And my daughters have grown up to be amazing, strong women, for which I take an eensy amount of credit, the rest being all their doing.)

I’ve also learned to relax about my cooking. I’m a good cook, although not given to following recipes too closely or attempting anything too fancy. My general approach is to grab a bunch of fresh produce, mostly from our garden, and not overcook it. But from time to time, the results might be edible but are unlikely to be requested again. Then there are the spectacular disasters. I am notorious for burning things in pots, which is what happens when plot ideas strike in the middle of preparing dinner. My best weapon against perfectionism here is a sense of humor. If I can laugh at the inedibility of an experiment (and follow it up with a 30-minute-or-less-from-pantry-staples dish) then it becomes a shared source of merriment. Silly, rather than tragic.

Why then is it so much harder to cut myself some slack when it comes to writing? In my saner moments, I know that no piece of prose is ever perfect. It works or doesn’t work or sort-of works or works for some folks but not others. We say “perfect” when it carries us away so completely, we are oblivious to any flaws. But the flaws are there, and another reader (or viewer, or listener) might well find them looming large.

What would it take for me to say, “This is the best I can do right now”? To remember that, as Paul Valery wrote, “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

Can I trust my creative instincts to know when to let a project rest and come back to it later, when to keep working away, or when to release it to the world, warts and all?

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Perfectionism in Motherhood, Cooking, and Writing — 7 Comments

  1. Too often in writers workshops I see the same short story or synopsis and first chapter over and over and over, year after year. The author “can’t” submit it because it’s not perfect. Too often by the 3rd attempt it has gone stale. All the sparkle of the first attempt has been written out of it.

    Finding the perfect draft is a challenge. There is always something more to tweak, one comma that changes everything.

    That’s where I let deadlines work for me. I have a contract that says it must be on the editor’s desk by the 15th of the month. I send it on the 14th, before it goes lifeless.

    • So sadly true about polishing all the life out of a story, clinging to it as if it is the only story a person will ever write. Some early stories are worth telling, but others are explorations. Class exercises, as it were, to prepare us for something better.

  2. That’s why I’ve learned to watch “tv” (dvds or streaming) while cooking. Writing while cooking always means destroying dinner. I’m just not there when writing. 🙂

  3. Hi Dawn! One of my keeshonds came with your name. Dawn would slink about the ktcihen, while I cooked dinner. (She’d forget she had been put in Down, stay. ) So if I ended up stepping on one of her paws, I’d yelp and she’d yelped! Then she would give me a direct stare like I was the one who had forgotten she had free choice of all vegetable slices that rolled off the chopping board. She always forgave me, quickly, but I’d be left worrying I had hurt her.