Friday, March 28, 2008

Haul out the T-square, drop down the plumb.

I’m at the end of a poem I’ve been working on for nearly a year. I’ve been stuck at the same passage for months and months, and I spend all my days turning it over in the back of my mind. When I go running, I play around with the words in rhythm with my strides. Before I drop off to sleep, I freewrite for a few minutes. I even dream about the damned thing, my subconscious self typing away and deleting, typing and deleting all night long. I just can’t quite get it right. But I keep working. It’ll get there.

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.


Flavia said...

I'm so sorry about your divorce--and all the bad things that go with it. Please take care of yourself.

* * * * *

This part of your post really resonated with me:

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.

For that reason, it helps me, sometimes, to reflect that in a while (never soon enough, and never quite when one needs it) the mess will make sense, and that it's a sense-making that we ourselves are in control of: it's not that time heals all wounds or everything happens for a reason, or whatever other bullshit people tell one, but that time gives one enough material to more tidily and usefully narrate to ourselves whatever it is that happened.

(And that's exactly the kind of control that I, personally, always long for.)

dkm said...

I wish I were responding to the "chaotic universe" problem as productively as you are. Lord knows, I’d publish more. For me the mechanism of control is maintaining a preternaturally clean and ordered home. Sad but true. That, and the existential purity of weight lifting. It can’t be faked, you know? Either you move the iron or you don’t. Sort of like running or writing the perfect conclusion to that poem.

Good luck with it, and with life.

squadratomagico said...

Sorry to hear about the divorce -- that sucks. I hope you work your way through it as serenely as possible.

As for the incomprehensibility of the world: I kind of like that. It's also why I love travel: the sense that anything can happen, that there is much to surprise me. It can be exciting to be in a situation that is bizarre and difficult to grasp. I think if I controlled too much of the world, I would find life too dull and predictable.

neophyte said...

This is a really beautiful post, RG. I've been mulling it over since it went up, trying to understand my response to it.

The craving for validation is where I most identify -- except that, when (if!) it comes, it never confers what I so desire. It only ups the ante, or prepares unfair expectations; or I suspect the validator of lying or of insufficiently discriminating taste. Or, worst, it allows me for a time to rest on my laurels, the least productive non-activity there is. (This is where laziness comes in.)

My problem (with food, with partners, with writing -- your triumvirate of anxiety-carriers is very apt) has always been not enough control, rather than too much. I have a sick jealousy of the type-As, the control-cravers -- if only, I think (dementedly), I could exert, or at least desire, that level of control, think how successful I'd be / how much I'd accomplish / how people would adore me!

That's insane, of course.

But I do think it's possible that the nature of academic work, of the profession, can drill that sense into a person, especially a woman, and especially in the early years. One of my mentors has a favorite praise term for colleagues and students: "S/he controls every detail of x, y, or z." It's easy to perceive that expectation, easy to think that I am expected to control everything, never to miss a beat, always to be a step ahead of the conversation.

Nobody, of course, expects that. Or anything like it.

What's impressive, and important, and health-building, I think, is that we look at these things. We look at them, and we start to understand them. Then, eventually, comes the day when you can say, "Okay, here's this thing again. I know what this is. It goes over there." Recognition, I think, is the most important step toward overcoming these things.

See? Look at all those words. No control at all. (Speaking of "inchoate"... which, naturally, is one of my favorite words. It describes my existence perfectly.)

Thanks for this.