Not the Best: Ambition vs. Peace of Mind

Tallmadge DoyleI rewrote the title of this post a good few times, and I still don’t love it. For a while it was “Goat’s Milk Caramel and Imperfection,” but I decided that was too twee . . . even though I’m a children’s book writer who spends much of my time making goat’s milk caramel in a cute little cottage in the west of Ireland, and there’s a fairly high Inherent Twee Index in that scenario.

I’ve been planning to write the post itself for days–weeks, now?–too. And yet.

It’s so easy not to get around to something, not to start, when if you leave it in the future it can still be perfect. Anything you haven’t done yet can still exist in a state of Platonic idealism.

Once you start, though, you see limits. You watch yourself fail, or at least not incandescently succeed. At the same time, you’re annoyed with yourself for even thinking you could ever do something perfect in the first place. I mean, who do you think you are?

And yet. And yet.

I wrote the first draft of Tides for NaNoWriMo 2008. I called my discombobulated monster manuscript The Undershoal Journals and I’m pretty sure it was terrible, but I could never even bring myself to look at it again after I finished writing it. I was embarrassed that I’d written something that I was convinced was so bad. I was supposed to be a brilliant writer; hadn’t I been put in the gifted classes ever since I could remember? How dare I dash all those parents’ and teachers’ hopes by writing something less than perfect?

Tallmadge DoyleSeven years later, I’m close to finishing Compass. It’s been harder for me to write this book than either Tides or Mechanica, partly because of all kinds of upheaval in my personal life in the last two years . . . but just as much, I think, because it’s the first book I’m actually writing under contract. If it’s terrible (as I’m often convinced it is) I can’t just banish it to a forgotten corner of my hard drive the way I did with The Undershoal Journals or any number of short stories from my MFA program, never to be seen again.

No. I’ve already been paid for Compass, and that money has long since gone into such luxuries as rent and electricity. There’s no going back on this one, baby. I have to turn in my manuscript very, very soon (I’m already behind on my deadline), no matter how bad it is. That’s terrifying.

It’s terrifying because that book is proof that I’m not the Actual Best Writer The World Has Ever Seen. That Compass isn’t the Great American Novel.

For fuck’s sake, of course it’s not. How arrogant could I be? But part of me is. Part of me is so arrogant that I can’t even bear to write blog posts very often, because they’re not perfect, either. I don’t want to write anything that isn’t total, pure genius.

Tallmadge DoyleIt’s embarrassing even to write that! But the thing is, I’ve learned from teaching that most writers feel the same way. And when I see that balking in my students, that perfectionism masquerading as procrastination (commonly called writer’s block), I can view it a little more kindly. I can say: the issue is how much you care. You love great writing (and reading great writing) so much that you can’t stand making anything less. Your great love pins you to an impossible standard, one that’s been reinforced by every class you’ve taken, every word of early praise or censure you’ve received. I don’t think that’s arrogance; I don’t even think it’s necessarily bad.

But it can still debilitate. It can still keep you from writing at all.There’s the bad.

So where does the twee caramel come into this?

I write nearly every day, and I milk the goats and make caramel (or soap, or cheese) at least as often. I’m ambitious for my goats and their milk; I’d like them to be a significant part of how I make my living someday soon. And yet I don’t have any aspirations–not even secret, arrogant ones–of being The Greatest Caramel Maker The World Has Ever Known. In my heart of hearts, my highest goat-related ambitions involve a small herd and a few jars of my caramel sauce in local gourmet shops, and maybe selling my soap on Etsy. Small potatoes indeed compared to the “Shakespeare can eat my dust” dreams that I know, I know, most writers secretly share.

So the question I want to ask is: why do we want that in the first place? Why are we all so desperate to be the best that we’re terrified of anything lesser? After all, not a single one of us will ever reach that dream. No matter how good we are, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. We’re never going to be as good as we want to be, because that level of perfection (any level of perfection) doesn’t exist.

I know it doesn’t exist for me. But the only time I enjoy writing is when I let go of the hope for perfection, when I let myself be bad. I would hate making caramel or soap if I needed it to be perfect every time. I botch batches every week, adding flavors or scents or other ingredients that don’t work, fudging my measurements. Experimenting. Imperfection, failure, is ultimately the only thing that’s fun about creativity; and ironically, it’s often what a reader will latch onto in a piece of writing, as well.

I love–loveJessica Williams’ response to claims that she suffers from an inferiority complex because she declined to take over the Daily Show. I love this analysis from newwavefeminism on Tumblr just as much:

There’s a specific arrogance and entitlement with white patriarchy that says you must prove that you’re the best at everything.

Like so many young feminists, I’m sick of individualistic, lean-in feminism that says empowerment is about being the best (and, by extension, better than everyone else). I’m sick of a feminism that’s all about me, my journey, my empowerment. My feminism, or at least the feminism that I strive toward, is about building a better world, about fixing our structural, institutional illnesses at every level. Feminism shouldn’t be about climbing the ladder, but about dismantling the damn thing in the first place.

That philosophy trickles into my writing and my teaching like this: I am trying to unlearn the need to be perfect. I am trying to help my students unlearn that need, too. It’s hard, especially with my gifted students. We’re taught to value ourselves based on how good we are–meaning how intellectually or creatively elite we are–because that’s how we see other people valuing us. Parents, teachers, even friends; even ourselves.

What a blessing it would be if we could let it go.

(Art credits: Tallmadge Doyle)

5 thoughts on “Not the Best: Ambition vs. Peace of Mind

  1. Wonderfully said! I’ve struggled with perfectionism and its effects my whole life. The topic finds its way into my blog fairly often. Ambition does make it far worse, because my own psyche turns on me and insists I must be the best at everything I try to do. I had not looked at it from a feminist perspective, but now you’ve got me thinking about how patriarchal society might actually create that attitude in women, particularly in women who strive to be “high-achieving” in male dominated fields. I must look into this further. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. “My own psyche turns on me”–yes, exactly! I wish I could say to my brain: come on, we both want to get this done, let’s just do it. But it doesn’t quite seem to work that way. 🙂

  2. Wow! This is an amazing piece, Betsy. Thank you for writing it – so much resonated with me and it makes wonderful sense.

    You’re right – we need to dismantle the ladder of patriarchy and build something that serves women *and* men.

    1. Thanks so much, Hazel! Yeah, the ladder suits no one. There’s a great book called HOPE FOR THE FLOWERS that deals with that idea through the medium of cute caterpillars and butterflies, but it’s . . . actually super resonant. I highly recommend!

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