Sunday, August 23, 2009

Reevaluating Perfectionism = (Accepting Agitation + Embracing Mistakes)/Self-Delight

Yesterday my wife and I were discussing her discontent.

Jackie, my wife, is an accomplished jazz dancer and fledgling choreographer. The last two years have seen her take risks in her craft. She's developed her choreographic voice while completing her MFA.

Last month she finished her thesis and resigned from the professional company she has been a member of for 8 years.

She's between gigs awaiting a teaching opportunity at Northeastern Illinois University.

All this seems to be a catalyst for what appears a healthy dose of existential angst.

She is unsure if she deserves to consider herself an artist when her days now seem filled with grocery lists, novel reading and her Pilades practice.

She, like most creative people, is a perfectionist who weighs her appreciation for her chosen craft against vague ambitions and current circumstances. This usually creates a perception where the creative person comes up on the losing end. Living life is a mundane practice that suffers against the imaginings of aesthetic invention.

As we spoke I suggested that her desire to perceive her current experience with some form of duality discredits the appreciation she might have in recognizing that no matter what she does there is no chance anybody will create a "Jackie Brenner" piece because she is the only Jackie Brenner there is. Creativity is an act of selfish self-will that does not need the approval of others to be.

We've had a lot of these discussions because both of us are choosing to practice our crafts. Self-consciousness and the perfectionistic need for approval stop the urge that drives creativity. We keep encouraging each other to keep going.

Perfectionistic attitudes can be reevaluated and be seen for the silliness they are.

Dudley Randall, in his poem, "A Poet is not a Jukebox" writes that a writer, " . . . writes what agitates his heart and sets his pen in motion . . ."

From the age of 20 (when my first play was produced) and over the next 10 years I dreamed self-expressive dreams equivalent to Randall's pledge but, always ran headlong into a self-defeating level of perfectionism triggered by public criticism and competition. I wanted so badly to be seen as good I contradicted the truth of Randall's poem.

Dudley Randall was the poet laureate of Detroit and he was a hero of mine but in a popular sense never really climbed to the imaginary pinnacle I placed him. He always trailed and continues to trail a list of more well known Detroit popular "poets" like Smokey Robinson, Eminem, "Dutch" Leonard and Jack White.

I mistakenly made my private appreciation of Randall somehow evidence of his fame failing to acknowledge he spent much of his professional life scribbling beautiful poems dedicated to simplicity and realism while working at the Wayne County Federated Library System as head of the reference-inter-loan department.

I gave up on play-writing in 1999 for various reasons, of which, the two primary ones were a failed marriage and a failed commission. I had poisoned good relationships with my inability to reconcile how writing not only offered me the experience of respecting my unique life and perspective but demanded I do so with no greater expectation than Randall's day-job. I had promised my wife at the time (now ex-wife) a part written for her (not my promise to make) so she would find me adorable and smart (something that was increasingly rare in our relationship) and promised the theatre whose commission I accepted an entertaining play that combined humor and truth (yet delivered a ghost story centered on suicide and the victimization of a society by a government determined to develop weaponry that could perfect germ warfare).

I honestly tried to be adorable, smart, humorous and truthful with the focus on creating something that would serve the expectations of my ex-wife and commissioned employer.

I failed miserably because I was too focused on being adorable, smart, humorous and truthful with a focus on creating something that would serve the expectations of my ex-wife and commissioned employer.

I instead could have just been myself.

I failed to recognize that promises towards perfect outcomes relative to other's expectations is a contradiction to the power art provides. I was hoping to be the single in the juke-box with the well-worn button that people pushed to shake their booty against a popular rhythm. I tried really hard to be a crooning well-loved Temptation and succeeded in being a reviled and misunderstood Stooge.

I share this in the wake of empathizing with Jackie's angst and finishing my first full-length play in 11 years. I did it as an act of completing the commission I lost in 1999 and my process was about what was true to me. I hope people get it but, don't know if they will. I tried to write a play that was about what is agitating me and something I'd like to see.

My journey back to writing plays started with this blog and this blog started because I needed a place to put down my honest thoughts. It was necessary to climb out of a people pleasing hole I started digging with my failed commission. Fearing I was stupid I attempted fitting in for the last 10 years and just succeeded in deepening a rut gouged by mediocrity. I left play-writing for a career in advertising as a brand planner. For those outside the advertising business, a brand planner is a corporate social scientist who tries to honestly contradict client mandates for the sake of consumer relevance. In reality, too often, he or she needs to be a spin doctor satisfying client mandates for the sake of the agency's profitability. Or, as one planning friend shared with me, "Man I want so badly to believe I work in the Bauhaus but feel like an order taker at a Fast-Signs franchise."

The ad game is a shuck and jive childish pretense where the perfection it pretends to offer is real. A place where nobody ever admits they don't know. But, embracing mistakes is the only way I've been able to understand my ideas. I am not perfect. I never will be and I realized as I wrote the latest play that making art provides a relaxation not found in pretentious perfections.

To be creative is to be sloppy, a tinkerer and live within the premise, "Progress, not perfection." It is all progress. My life as a writer is a way I can bring value to all of my life and allows me to embrace mistakes as evidence of something uniquely me. Getting lost inside the puzzle of the latest play felt like an encouragement. It was a science of the mind that allowed me to observe my confusion and determine its meaning.

Or as Dudley Randall writes:

"A poet is not a jukebox.
A poet is not a juekbox.
I repeat, a poet is not a jukebox for someone to shove a quarter in his ear
and get the tune they want to hear.
. . . a poet is not a jukebox.

So don't tell me what to write."


Timo said...

My mother has often said in recent years, "perfection is the enemy of the good". I agree. We do lots of harm to ourselves and sometimes others as we strive for something perfect. Our meddling tends to spoil things.

"Do you want to improve the world?
I don't think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it."

- Tao te Ching, Chapter 29

- Timo

Reverend Phillip Brown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Barb said...

I answered you at my blog, Chuck and am wondering how you happened to stumble across my blog.

I have to see a dentist now --and I'm uninsured!! paid for my own root canal --and don't expect anyone else to do it!

If I didn't have to rush off, I'd study your blog more --and will, later.

always interested in a new voice. --especially one in the arts. My family does music/education/performance/theater.

mud_rake said...

Barb and her husband [MD] live in a comfortable suburb of Toledo and own a summer home in Michigan.

I hope she can 'pay' for her dental work...

Lessa said...

Hey Chuck- Congrats on finishing that play!
I just finished my interdisciplinary arts and media mfa at Columbia College Chicago and promptly moved out here to the bay area to be with my husband- it IS a rather existential time. After working so hard on my own stuff it's confusing sometimes trying to fit into the outside world without losing track of who I want to be/who I really am.
Check out Core Project Chicago. Your wife might resonate with their work- nice talented bunch of dancers- a couple also recent mfa grads...
On another note-
I can't help but think that someday you're going to find that lovely fb wedding photo of yours on a billboard in eastern Europe as a credit card ad... wouldn't that be an ironic twist with what you have to say about what's real and what's not.:) That photo really is a stunning piece of art- as well as being a great record of your blissful life together. Love the dress!