There is something liberating about doing a thing you enjoy, even if you know you aren’t doing it well. It feels like skinny-dipping in the town fountain, or giving someone the finger: there’s a defiance, a recklessness to it. If you are a perfectionist, that is.
If you too are a perfectionist, you understand that it goes beyond high personal standards; perfectionism can be crippling. There are loads of things I’ve shied away from because nothing mortifies a perfectionist like a learning curve. We want to be excellent at everything, right from the get-go.
To wit: This was supposed to be The Year I Wrote a Novel. I’d made this promise to myself before; my hard drive is chock-full of false starts. Invariably, somewhere along the way I’d realize what a mess I was making. I knew the middle part, maybe, but not the beginning or the end. “You’re wasting your time,” a little voice inside my head would say. “Stick to short stories! You’ll waste decades of your life writing a stupid novel no one will publish. You’ll be the most embarrassing kind of person in the world: a novelist manqué!”
My inner voice is a jerk.
After a few false starts early this year, I set aside my attempts at a novel and began cello lessons instead.
I know what you’re thinking: Why would a perfectionist with a sadistic inner voice take up the cello? The answer: I didn’t mean to. Three years ago, I borrowed a friend’s cello for a writing project because I needed an up-close look at the instrument. As soon as I opened the case, I knew I could never give the cello back. For weeks, I slept with it beside my bed.
I didn’t know how to read music or play any kind of instrument, but in those hazy days of early love, that hardly seemed like an obstacle. My friend explained how to hold the bow, and I spent hours playing the open strings, feeling the cello vibrate against my chest. Eventually though, disillusionment crept in. It wasn’t long before the cello was consigned to its case in a corner of the living room. Months would go by without me touching it. Spiders swathed it in cobwebs. Dead bugs collected at its base, a mound of small reproaches.
This went on until one day I couldn’t take how terrible I felt about myself. Having a cello I didn’t play was embarrassing. It was worse, I decided, than having a cello I played badly. I went online and found a teacher.
Seven months later, I can butcher a few pieces by Bach and Handel and Mozart. No orchestra would hire me because I’m terrible. But I am learning to read music. I can do triplets and sixteenth notes and slurs and can shift into second position. In the process, I’ve discovered that trying is sort of fun. And that learning to play well will take a long, long time.
Which brings us to NaNoWriMo.
I’ve never participated in National Novel Writing Month before because I always thought, “What’s the point? No one really writes a novel in a month. Maybe you’ll write fifty thousand words, but it won’t really be a novel, it’ll be a terrible mess that needs a jillion revisions.”
I was completely missing the genius of the idea. It’s a rip-the-bandage-off-quickly approach to writing your inevitably crappy first draft. What has held me back from writing a novel in the past is the notion that I’ll spend ages on an initial draft that will suck. With NaNoWriMo, I can embrace the suck. Of course it’s going to suck! Like babies! Like beginning cellists! Novels suck too in their early days! And if it’s worthy of nothing other than the recycling bin, then I’ve only lost a month and can at least say I tried.
Too, there’s something to be said for the idea that countless writers all over the globe are manically typing their first drafts this month. I know they’re there all the time, year-round, like the stars during the daytime. But one thinks about them more during November. Just like it was a mistake to try and learn the cello by myself, maybe it would also be a mistake to write my first novel without some solidarity.
E. D. Watson is Newfound’s Blog Editor. A writer by day and a library clerk by night, her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in [PANK], Narrative, Real South and Gulf Stream, among other publications. She eats cheddar-and-mayonnaise sandwiches when no one is looking.