If only for once it were still.
If the not quite right and the why is
could be muted, and the neighbor’s laughter,
and the static my senses make–
if all of it didn’t keep me from coming awake–
Then in one vast thousandfold thought
I could think you up to where thinking ends.
I could possess you,
even for the brevity of a smile,
to offer you
to all that lives,
The Book of Hours, I,7 – Rilke
To be creative, the not quite right voice must be muted. The critical voice paralyzes experimentation. The perfectionist mind forbids stumbling– and stumbling is necessary for discovery. If you want your work to be alive, to be authentic, to come from the seed that is yours–the dragon of perfectionism must be slain. As makers, the key is to participate fully, to lose ourselves in the act of creating. There is bravery, and perhaps even faith, in being willing to fail.
One of my favorite stories about the stifling effect of perfectionism is from the poet William Stafford. He told his students at Lewis and Clark that his practice was to write one poem each day. He gave his students the same assignment– to write one poem for every day of the semester. His students were dismayed, how do you write a poem everyday?! How do you do this?
To which William Stafford famously replied, "Lower your standards."
William Stafford's lack of arrogance allowed him to write each day without concern about whether his work would be published, admired, criticized or just thrown in the trash bin. The practice was to show up each day, prepared to put pen to paper. This willingness to begin where you are– regardless of how inadequate it seems– is the only way to move forward. This sentiment is shown in Pablo Neruda's "Poetry":
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
of someone who knows nothing
Whether writing a poem, or practicing calligraphy, you begin with one line. The students in Taos were introduced to the broad-edged pen through line practice. If each line had to be "perfect", these lovely pages would not have had the chance to develop or have their singularity:
I talked to the class about how I was trained by my Chinese calligraphy teacher in line practice; each line having a beginning, middle and end. The work you see here was done by students who are not practiced calligraphers– but their ability to settle into the contemplative practice of making lines transformed the atmosphere in the classroom. The class focused on line, color, pattern and calligraphy (an alphabet that I have developed), and was punctuated with poetry and delicious, fresh food.
This is one of my favorite places to be: both as a student and a teacher. I had the privilege of studying poetry with Ellen Bass and Marie Howe before I began teaching my class. I will return in 2018 to teach– in March and in June.
"You can stumble and still be forgiven" – Wm Stafford
How does perfectionism stop you? How has stumbling led you to discovery? I'd love to hear from you.