Camus, Spanx, the Cerebellum, & Writing
Recently I was asked to answer a “Proust Questionnaire” for a get-to-know-your-teacher blurb. I had never heard the term but the exemplary questions, (e.g. Your favorite virtue; If not yourself, who would you be?; For what fault have you most toleration?; Favorite heroines in fiction) were clear enough that I was able to get into the spirit. I wrote back my own set of questions and answers which were:
- Least favorite virtue: lack of generosity
- Books I can read over and over: Silas Marner, The Plague (Albert Camus)
- Book I love but could only read once: Bel Canto
- Favorite way to spend disposable income: CSO
- If I wasn’t a scientist, I’d be a 1) farmer; 2) writer; and 3) teacher.
- Favorite historical figure: Abraham Lincoln
- Favorite scientist: Charles Darwin
- Most righteous living person: Eve Ensler
- Living person with most generous worldview: Elaine Scarry
- I reserve the right to be wrong and to hold multiple opinions.
These answers, which I beg you to take as the ravings of a moment and in line with my final answer, are not the point of this post but tangentially allied to two points that will figure prominently. First, I really love The Plague by Albert Camus and recently finished re-reading it. Second I love to write. This blog is about writing – the agonies, ecstasies, the challenges, payoffs, but most of all the evil enemy. Specifically I hope that by writing this post, I can exorcise myself of the perfect-blog-post-disease that currently afflicts me. Unlikely, but worth a shot!
A few of my favorite things in Camus’ The Plague
The Plague has many virtues. There is the slow build up from a dead rat or two to the pervasive dread, who will get sick next?, experienced by the inhabitants of the quarantined north African town beset by messy, painful agonal deaths. There is sublime writing such as the exchange between two overworked allies in the hopeless war against the plague that opens with one saying to the other, “Suppose we now take an hour off – for friendship?” And then there is the unforgettable character of Joseph Grand who is a clerk in the municipal government. Grand’s duties include recording births and deaths, a task that assumes great importance over the course of the interminable quarantine. Eventually, Grand “unburdens” himself to Dr Bernard Rieux, the narrator of the story, to reveal that he is writing, as in capital double-u Writing, a ” book or something of the sort.” When Dr Rieux asks Grand if he is “getting good results,” Grand answers, “Well, yes, I think I’m making headway.” Rieux then asks, “Have you much more to do?” to which Grand responds, “that’s not the point…I can assure you that’s not the point.”
What does Grand want? He wants his manuscript to be “flawless.” He imagines out loud to Dr Rieux that “on the day that the manuscript reaches the publisher, [he, the publisher] will stand up – after he’s read it through, of course – and say to his staff: ‘Gentlemen, hats off!'”
Grand’s quest reminds me of what the writer Anne Lamott encounters in her writing-students, “They kind of want to write but they really want to be published.” [All quotes from Anne Lamott are from bird by bird, a book that I highly recommend.] The students want fame, fortune and showers of accolades for their manuscripts which publishers will of course fight with each other to publish. Yet, as Ms Lamott writes, “publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is.”
I agree with Ms Lamott. I have written a book. I even like my book on most days and in most moods. But I certainly gained no fame, fortune, or accolades nor are publishers clamoring at my door, interested in my every written utterance. Luckily I realized some time during the wring process that I was writing the book for me, my Pritzker students, and for the nervous system, a central and beloved focal point of my life.
In the quest of a “flawless” manuscript, Grand encounters troubles, “Evenings, whole weeks, spent on one word, just think! Sometimes on a mere conjunction! I’d like you to understand, Doctor, I grant you it’s easy enough to choose between a ‘but’ and an ‘and.’ It’s a bit more difficult to decide between ‘and’ and then.’ But definitely the hardest thing may be to know whether one should put an ‘and’ or leave it out.” To this, the unflappable Dr Rieux responds, “Yes, I see your point.” You simply have to love Camus!
As the story unfolds, we learn that Grand aspires to write the perfect sentence. And it becomes apparent to the reader that the “book or something of the sort” consists of exactly this one single solitary sentence. Here is the sentence in all of its forms:
- One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Bologne. (p. 104)
- One fine morning in May a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Bologne. (p. 134)
- One fine morning in May a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a glossy sorrel mare along the flower-strewn avenues of the Bois de Bologne. (p. 134)
- One fine morning in May, a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a glossy sorrel mare along the avenues of the Bois, among the flowers. (p. 263)
And finally we learn that Grand “made a fresh start with his phrase. ‘I’ve cut out all the adjectives.'” According to my grammatical calculations, deleting all adjectives would yield: One morning in May, a horsewoman might have been seen riding a mare along the avenues of the Bois, among the flowers. A step backwards I believe. At book’s end, Grand is still plugging away at his sentence.
The Grand in us all
As ludicrous as Grand may appear to you, I feel one with him. He perfectly articulates the Muse that I want to simultaneously dispel and conquer. His literary quest and mine both strive for a ridiculous impossibility: the perfect sentence, the perfect book, the perfect phrase, the one and only way to convey a thought, idea or finding. The idea of a one and only is in fact the enemy. Another name for the one and only way is perfectionism. Here is Anne Lamott on the topic:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor… It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft…[It] will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force… Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.”
Perfectionism is indeed the voice of stagnation, “a mean, frozen form of idealism” (Anne Lamott). Anyone and everyone will fail utterly and completely to live up to this false idol, collapsing under the pressure to find the one and only way. Instead, just go for it. Again, here is Anne Lamott:
“…messes are the artist’s true friend… we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here – and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.”
Total bust? Let’s high-five on that!
Ms Lamott’s embrace of mess, bad drafts, and so-called mistakes reminds me of a wonderful story told by Sara Blakely, a businesswoman who founded Spanx:
“I grew up in a house where my father encouraged my brother and me to fail. I specifically remember coming home and saying, Dad, Dad, I tried out for this or that and I was horrible, and he would high-five me and say, Way to go. He reframed my definition of failure from an early age. Failure to me became not trying, instead of the outcome.”
I just love that image of a father high-fiving his children for trying and not succeeding. That’s the ticket. Fail, approximate, miss, try again, get closer, occasionally shoot a bull’s eye. The bull’s eye may be a word, a sentence, maybe a paragraph, and when you’re living right, an entire piece of work. And who does this approach remind you of? Well, being the brain-centric person that I am, it reminds me of the cerebellum. As you may know, the cerebellum needs input and lots of it (the ratio of fibers going in vs leaving from the cerebellum is 40:1) to work with; it needs data and that data must take the form of hits and misses. The cerebellum chip, if you will, is predicated on misses as much as on hits. Misses are the cerebellum’s manna and without those errors, the cerebellum can neither calibrate itself, aka boot up, at the start of life nor operate thereafter. It cannot come to life without your tries.
In closing, I leave you with three conclusions and a resolution.
Conclusion 1: writing is about writing and not publishing or disseminating that writing.
Conclusion 2: A piece of writing can be bad, good, or great but will never be perfect.
Conclusion 3: The path to expert writing is paved by a cerebellar approach of hits and misses, learning from attempts and mistakes.
Resolution: I will stop sitting on the 18 post drafts that I have, waiting for the bluebird of perfection to rain down on me. I will, I really will….
Reading list for those interested:
The Plague by Albert Camus, Translated by Stuart Gilbert (1948) Vintage Books, 1991 edition; 308 pp.
bird by bird by Anne Lamott (1994) Anchor Books, 1995 edition; 238 pp.