It’s not a great mystery to me why I ended up pursuing this career path. My natural inclination is to worry and harry and harrow things into perfection, which—as many of you who responded to my last post acknowledged—is perhaps not the healthiest way to go through the world. My sense is that the universe is so chaotic, so terrifyingly incomprehensible, that I seek to control my small sphere of it by nailing things down.
So I set myself the task of expressing something—doesn’t matter what: experience and ideas and emotions are, I think, equally ineffable, and equally resist our attempts at representation. And I work it, and work it, like my kid’s tongue works his loose tooth. But it’s not enough for me to get it right. I have to be validated in that verdict by someone else, an Authority. Editor at a journal. Editor at a publishing firm. Publishing becomes, for me, not a way of disseminating my ideas beyond my head, but the confirmation that I got it right, a pat on the head from the institutions of thought, from the Man.*
Because contained within the perfectionist urge, the more insidious face of it, is the conviction that one is never good enough.
I am what I like to call a recovering anorexic. I don’t actively participate in self-destructive behaviors anymore, but there are things I can’t do: I can’t shop for clothes, can’t look in a full-length mirror, can’t weigh myself, can’t miss a night of running. If I do any of these things, I spend days and days beating myself up for my failure to live up to what I have decided is my “perfect” version of myself. I’m a pretty smart girl, and I recognize the logical fallacies involved and the ways in which I am hostage to arbitrary designations and the illusions of a market culture, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel compelled to live up to them nevertheless. There’s some part of me that needs the pat on the head; and really, the validation I get from my own skewed determinations isn’t all that much different from the validation conferred by the (subjective, human) Authorities I want so much to impress. In both cases, I spend all my energies trying to produce something good enough. In practical terms, this impulse is very, very good for a life in the academy, because it impels me forward, keeps me working at a high rate of productivity.
But here’s the thing: there’s always the next tired night lacing up the shoes. The conference paper gets accepted, and then it must be written; the presentation must go well; the article must be written; well-placed; the article must be transformed into a book; the book must be published...and then there’s the next one. The poem gets finished and must be published; another poem nags at the mind; the book gets published...and then there’s the next one. At what point, I start to wonder, will the validation be sufficient? At what point will I feel like I’ve proven myself? And why do I seem to be the only one who thinks I need to?
I’m getting divorced. It’s been in the works for a couple of years, but now the legal part appears imminent, and I’m just devastated. There’s the grief you would expect, certainly, but there’s also the realization, especially hard for someone of my psychological profile, that no matter how much one tries, how hard one works to find the perfect words, the perfect behavior, the universe remains chaotic and incomprehensible and out of one’s control.
My response: devote myself to that book proposal, those chapters-in-progress, that recalcitrant poem. Because, damn it to hell, eventually they will be perfect.
*Yes, I’m aware that there’s a gender thing involved here. That’s a whole ‘nuther issue.