“Earlier on, I feel like I was trying to polish some of the humanity out.” -Sam Beam, Iron & Wine
I put that quote on last year’s vision board as a reminder not to do that. I used to do that with music a fair amount. I didn’t mean to, I just catered to perfectionism without even realizing I was doing it. I would over-polish and create a sound that seemed like it was produced in a vacuum. (Of course a lot of people actually likethis kind of sound – hello, autotune – but I do not, so I do not want to over-polish. We have enough robots vying to be Capitalism’s “Best” Whatever.)
The past few years I’ve let myself be a lot more vulnerable with music. I polished, but I kept my humanity front and center. And on a meta level, my ego had a hard time with things moving slower than I would have liked. But I kept at it and fell more deeply in love with making music again.
I also started a new draft of my book a little over a year ago. I began studying Marion Roach Smith’s approach to memoir writing (she has a book called The Memoir Project, is a book coach, and teaches several excellent classes). I got wise about my book being about one thing, what my central argument was (the universal meaning), the transformation for which the reader was reading, and just generally streamlined the whole thing. I worked and worked and worked, showing up, typing away, creating puzzle pieces that I hoped were fitting.
Then I did a few more drafts. I let in an excellent editor. And realized with her feedback that I had polished a lot of the humanity out. My draft, with some distance, reminded me of that painting of Jesus that lady tried to so lovingly restore and instead created a soft, out-of-focus mess. Not that my previous draft was a masterpiece. But I loved it so hard I smoothed out some things that still needed to be sharp.
I tried so hard to streamline and make everything be on-theme (including new pieces to show me finding my voice) that I eliminated a lot of what was giving the whole thing breath in the first place. And, as my editor pointed out, if my book was about my family, I ought not neglect to mention my sisters for almost three-hundred pages. Though I think my sisters might be more comfortable with their absence on my pages – but that’s a subject for another time.
It is a tremendous privilege to get to be a writer.
“Take pride in making it better and better. Let it take ALL the time. It’s artistry,” said Linda Sivertsen (mentor, Book Mama, host of The Beautiful Writers Podcast) on one of my writing group’s coaching calls.
But before I heard that I went a little into victim. I was like, “Oh man, I’ve been working on this for four plus years, when will I ever be done?” The answer is: I don’t know. And that is OK. But I’m willing to keep improving it (not, like, perfection-improvement, but real improvement).
Making beautiful things is a balancing act. Because on one hand we’re not even supposed to judge the work (I have a hard time with this one and for now am not totally detached from “how” my work is. I love thinking about it too much to be a true creative Buddhist about it. Yet). And on the other hand, it’s work, and if we want, we must do our due diligence to make it the best it can be. So this can be a bit of a finger trap.
I also realized I needed to write that smudgy-poorly-restored-Jesus draft to lead me to the nextdraft, which I’m working on now. Since I am a human person, I can breathe humanity back in. And to be fair to myself, I did not polish allof the humanity out. My first scene is bonkers aces, I think. It doesn’t even tweak my Imposter Complex to say that.
So! I will keep working at it. Four years after starting this book I’m glad to say I was ignorant of how steep my own learning curve would be writing memoir because now I’m a bit better at this longform. (I’m far more used to writing in short-form bites, having written a 500-word column for twelve plus years.) Most importantly (not that this is the hierarchy-of-importance Olympics) I love doing it. I love my writing cave.
Have you polished the humanity out anywhere in your life for the old siren song of perfection, streamlining, staying on-theme? Accidentally making soft-focus Jesuses with the impossible heft of your passion for something? Where has it led you? I don’t think there’s any chance of resurrecting that Jesus painting, perhaps ironically, but our work gets to live to see another day.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.