Surrender to Mediocrity. Accept Imperfection. Strive for Excellence.
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Surrender to Mediocrity

I recently attended a writers’ workshop by the incomparable, Cheryl Strayed, author of the poignant and brutally honest memoir, Wild and a beautiful book of unconventional inspirations, Tiny Beautiful Things Strayed was an absolute font of inspiration, offering so many quotables that my pen couldn’t keep up.  Among the most quotable of the quotables was a phrase she used repeatedly, and one that has taken me awhile to fully absorb.  Frankly, her suggestion even made me bristle at first.  Cheryl Strayed, bestselling author, teacher of writers, inspiration to many actually said, “Surrender to mediocrity.”

Huh?

But I thought we were supposed to fight mediocrity, accept only the very, very best and strive toward some level of achievement of which we can be proud.  I don’t want to write a mediocre book. I don’t want to create a mediocre anything!

Of course Cheryl Strayed was not saying to aim for mediocrity and to accept a mediocre final product; this much I knew. The essence of this notion is that we cannot compare ourselves to some ideal before we even start some creative endeavor, or else our perceived inability to meet the standard may keep us from starting at all.

negative-committee

For years I kept myself from writing (or at least writing books) because I couldn’t possibly write as well Pat Conroy, or John Steinbeck, or Dorothy Allison, or Alice Munroe.  What I perceived as their artistic perfections paralyzed me. How dare I dip my brush into the same pallet as these artists?

Years ago, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (an inspiring guide for writers) helped me with this, with her concept of “really shitty first drafts”.  The idea that my first draft not only did not have to be perfect, it could even be really shitty provided me with enough courage to write on.  I’ve heard so many other people—not just writers and artists, but people imagining all kinds of creative or adventurous endeavors—stop themselves before they even start because they can never “do it as well as________.”

To some degree, Cheryl Strayed’s idea of surrendering to mediocrity is related to the idea of really shitty first drafts. It’s also more than that.  Her whole quote reads:

Surrender to mediocrity in your writing. This isn’t a false sense of deprecation, but an acceptance that you are not in charge of what the work is. Be ambitious enough to write the best story that you can write, but just accept that you cannot control the story.

I think this has to do with surrendering to the creative process and discovering the story as it unfolds. Unless we abandon perfectionism, the story cannot reveal itself.  I don’t want to aim for mediocre, and certainly not for really shitty, but I have the freedom to start the process free from the burden of doing things perfectly.

I wonder: How many wonderful stories, masterful paintings, brilliant ideas for businesses, etc. don’t even get started because of the fear that they won’t be exceptional, brilliant, perfect?  It’s a sad thought.

Accept Imperfection

Long ago I gave up my notion that I had to do everything perfectly. Okay, I’ve almost given it up. I’m far more understanding and supportive of the imperfections of my friends and loved ones than I am with flaws of my own. Lots of people are this way. When I’m being rational I can have a sense of fairness and appropriate self-criticism about my work and myself. But my inner perfectionist is alive and well, requiring a certain amount of wrestling and back talk to keep her in the background. I call her—my inner critic—Dominique. My Dominique has a perfect hourglass figure with a 24-inch waist, wears black pleather, high-healed boots, and a scowl. She and her kind can be seen as extras in the HBO series “Trueblood.” Dominique is a cruel dominatrix who finds flaws in even the best of what I do or how I live my life. She finds flaws. It’s what she does.  Once said flaws are found she doesn’t stop there. She super-sizes them to such enormous proportions that they can eclipse any sense of accomplishment I might have (or even reasonable self-assessment).

You likely know Dominique, though you might not know her name. Or you know one of her many minions of harsh criticism and self-doubt. Each one of us seems to have an inner committee of naysayers.  Naming Dominique has allowed me to recognize her handiwork and shrink her from an enormous Godzilla-sized creature to more of a flitting little Tinkerbell-sized being whom I can swat away like the annoying gnat that she is.  Easy to do when Dominique is just talking smack, making up bad stuff that simply isn’t so. Dominique regains her monstrous proportions when she is fed the food of actual mistakes. My actual errors somehow validate all of her other mischievous, inaccurate criticism giving it credibility beyond its due.

During the writing, editing, rewriting, reediting of my novel, I lived in fear of the dreaded typo.  I just hate when I make what Dominique would call “dumb-ass mistakes.” To stave off this possibility I solicited the help of peer readers, hired an editor. My publisher subjected the manuscript to the scrutiny of a professional proofreader who did her level best to cure me of my comma addiction.  (Thanks, Krissa.) I proofed her proofs. Then the book went to print.  The day the UPS guy delivered the boxes of freshly minted Fire & Water I was beside myself. (Still am…I’m just saying.)  But a few days later, perusing through the pages, I found it. There, right in the middle of my brand new bouncing baby book was a typo that had escaped all of the screens and examinations.  My beautiful newborn had a wart! Then I found another.  With the third error, Dominique swelled to godlike.  See, I told you it was crap!  I did my usual swatting, but her new girth made Dominique a little too big to shoo!

Since my initial discovery of a few dreaded typos I’ve had readers who have found other errors and have quite lovingly pointed them out.  Some timidly approached me. I hate to tell you this but…  While others have generously given the list of what they’ve found.  Thank you writer buddies. Really! The fact that you cared about me enough to tell me makes you the kind of friend that lets a girl know if her skirt is tucked into the waistband of her panties and I love you for it.  I’ll admit I’ve winced a little with each discovery and wish that I could invent a magical eraser that wipes the errors away from all of the printed and electronic copies at once.

MistakeTo calm myself, I recalled that old story about how Navaho artists intentionally weave a flaw into each blanket and basket so as not to offend their spirit world by trying to outshine their god.  Just as I started to find a little comfort in this story, Dominique sounded off.  “Bullshit! You didn’t put those typos in on purpose, so it doesn’t count.” Grrrr. I hate when Dominique is actually a little bit right.

I re-read Steinbeck’s East of Eden now and again as a perennial writing lesson. When pressed to list my favorite book—though that would be impossible—I list this one because not only is it just a great read, it’s a great lesson on how to write a book. I read it again about a month ago; every time I do there is another nuance I discover.  This reading I saw a something completely new—a typo.  Then, damned if I didn’t find a missing word.  I’m so sorry Mr. Steinbeck, but I was absolutely giddy with excitement.  This book that I have held as the pinnacle of literary perfection actually had a typo. Two even!  Published decades ago, reprinted dozens of times, considered a classic piece of literature, East of Eden has two typos. I even let myself imagine that it had more that I hadn’t seen. Maybe as many as my book!  Oh, joy. Oh, joy.

The errors in this beautiful book didn’t even begin to spoil the story for me or bring the book down on my personal rankings.  Rather, it made me feel as though John (I can call him that, now that I’ve found his flaws) and I share the same fallibility.  I’m not comparing my writing to that of masters like Steinbeck, but still, I’m thinking that maybe he and other writers I admire have shared my struggle with being less than perfect kind of made me feel like dancing—just a little.

So, Fire & Water, despite my very best efforts, has been printed with some errors in it. I’m a little bummed that this is true, but I will not let this eclipse my assessment of the book. When I try to be dispassionate about it, I can honestly say it’s a pretty good book.  People not related to me by blood, marriage, friendship, or financial obligation have written me letters to tell me how much it meant to them, how much they enjoy it. Very cool. There are those who don’t like it, I’m sure, but they’ve remained kindly silent so far. I’m not bragging here—well, maybe a little, but that’s not the intention—I’m sending reassurance to the rest of you perfectionists out there to quiet the inner voices of criticism and perfectionism.  Whatever you create will contain flaws.  Just don’t let the fear of imperfection keep you from creating.  Imagine if Steve Jobs had done this.  If he’d quit, none of us would be able to check Facebook while sitting on the toilet!  (No, I don’t do this…but I’ve heard of people that do.  You know who you are.)

Strive for Excellence

With all of this chatter about surrendering to mediocrity and embracing imperfection, you might get the impression that I’m encouraging apathy and sloppiness. Not even close.  This acceptance is just a means to an end and should not replace a drive to do our best, to strive for that level of excellence that is just beyond our grasp.

In my belief system it’s our obligation—indeed our moral calling, if I dare to be so lofty— to try to become the best that we can be: the best parent, the best person, the best at our work, the best friend.  Laziness and apathy are qualities I abhor and I notice among my circle of friends they are qualities most lacking.  No accident there. I surround myself with ambitious, driven, quality-hungry people who care deeply about making contributions to the world and to those they love.  Sometimes it’s as simple as creating the best herb rub for a delicious pork chop. Sometimes it’s pulling off a simple surprise party for a friend. And sometimes it’s about writing a really good story.  I’m inspired by excellence in all its forms and am inspired by those who strive for it. I’m learning to be careful not to measure my works-in-progress to the finished work of others. In fact, I’m trying not to compare my finished works to the finished works of others; only to measure them against what is the best that I am able to do at any given moment in time.

Mediocrity and imperfection are necessary parts of ambition.  They are the trying and failing.  They are the infuriating annoyances that drive us to strive harder to do better next time and to become the best (fill in the blank) that is within our capacity. Despite all efforts, some of our work will be mediocre. Errors will happen.

Even in my most edited, proofread work I accept that I will be at no risk for offending the gods of the Navaho Nation.  But this mediocrity and flawed finish is part of my striving for excellence.

Take that, Dominique!

When has a fear of inadequacy kept you from trying something creative, risky, brave, or adventurous?

Have imperfections ever derailed you from continuing a dream or an ambitious pursuit?

What do you do to strive for excellence? How has that paid off for you?

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