Writing as Calculus

Thinking about writing—and my son. In a recent parent-teacher conference, one of his teachers suggested that my son is a perfectionist, and that’s why he’s so reticent to put words on the page. She told me how she sat down with him one day to brainstorm ideas. As they came up with idea after idea, she would occasionally say, “That’s a really good idea. Why don’t you write a story about that?” Each time, my son would say, “No, I don’t want to…” And his voice with trail off and fall into a sort of despondent monotone. It was like no idea was worthy enough, not inspiring enough for him to go through the effort of thinking about the words he would need to write his story.

For him, inspiration doesn’t hit until he’s lying on the couch with his dad, and they’re bouncing ideas off each other. Or he will get an idea about some fabulous contraption while we’re eating dinner, and he forgets to eat for 15 minutes while he tells us how it would work.

He insists that he needs voice recognition software to write down his ideas for him. I thought about this for a few days. He is eight years old and not yet adept at putting his ideas down fast enough for him to remember the connection to the next thought. Voice recognition software might just help him maintain his “stream of consciousness.”

But then again, when those thoughts are actually down on paper (transcribed by the software), the result might not meet his expectations. I know how hard it is to make the transition between what’s going on in my head and what actually gets written on the page. Too often, my grand designs fall apart on paper.

And I recall a performance of a local writer/performance artist in San Francisco. He memorized his works and then performed them for an audience. I enjoyed the performance and was left with the impression that he was a decent writer. But later, when I read sections of the book he “performed,” I found his writing to be terrible.

Could it be that the capable acting of the writer and my consciousness conspired to fill in the “holes” and disregard the awkward sentences and poor grammar, creating an experience that wasn’t on the page? I suppose this is fine if you are watching a performance, but it’s not if we’re concerned with the communion between the reader and the written word.

My son is laying bare for me the angst of writers, the disconnect between what could be and what is.

In this respect, writing is like calculus: as you work and rework a story, you  approach a limit—the goal that you’re trying to achieve—but it is epsilon, that unquantifiable amount that separates you from ever reaching your goal, that defies our desire for perfection. (I have this sudden urge to think of epsilon as a clown standing in front of me, throwing pie after pie in my face. Is that too negative?) Some days, epsilon throws an infinite number of pies, other days just a smattering of crust and whipped cream. But I never walk away without something on my face.

We live in the real world, so we must live with imperfection. Perhaps my son and I should subscribe to the notion that imperfection is the mark of being human. That the mark of an artist, a particular artist’s imperfection, is a perfect way to “mark” a work as being our own. Now if we can find a perfect way to leave our imperfect marks, all would be well with the world.

8 thoughts on “Writing as Calculus

  1. notwh0 says:

    So where do all these little perfectionists come from? My kids are similar — don’t want to try anything new in case they do it “wrong” or badly. My son, 9, actually said to his younger sister, “you’re lucky – you can still be creative. Your brain hasn’t hardened yet.” Which made me pretty sad. But then, the next day, he told me a fantastic story about a lonely garbage can, so…..thanks for the post. I’ll keep reading!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I think we just need to let them be creative when we’re not looking, or while we’re pretending to look in a different direction. Your son sounds pretty precocious. So maybe he would be interested in the latest neurology research. If you can still teach those moldy oldy adult brains new tricks–Woof!–then his brain, in comparison, must be pretty malleable. in fact, he’s well within the initial construction stage. It’s not until adolescence that zillions of neural networks get weeded out, if I recall correctly.

      I love the image of a lonely garbage can. It has such potential for a children’s story. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I’m thinking we all do our best when we’re not feeling self-conscious. I think sports-oriented people call it “being in the zone.” Also thinking about the books with titles that start “The Inner Game of..,” the most famous being, The Inner Game of Tennis. These books discuss how we can get past our fear and self-doubt, overcome the thoughts that get in our way.

      I just recently checked out a couple of this genre that are geared toward musicians. Talk about performance anxiety! The need to be perfect with every note! No wonder Glenn Gould had such a tough time performing. The movie about his life: 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould is instructive. Perfectionist behavior leads to silence–in whatever media you choose.

  2. subtlekate says:

    He really has opened the problem wide, and I can see it in myself and my own son who is a few years older. There is a concept that I am tryiing to instill in him called learning to fail and it’s a lession for myself as well.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Here’s a less on on learning to fail in a different form: As part of my son’s school’s annual fundraiser, every family is expected to sell raffle tickets. For the past two years, I sold all the tickets for my son. This year, I thought he was old enough to participate. So we made sugar cookies and signs and gathered up some of our used books, then headed out to the park to sell tickets, giving away cookies and books with each ticket purchased. At first, he hid behind a tree while I pretended to be a circus barker. But he ended up overcoming his fear and sold a handful of tickets. On our way home he said, ” Well, I may have gotten 70 or a 100 noes but a few people said yes.” Each “no” could be considered a failure, but they don’t matter if you focus on the yeses. And I reminded him that he wouldn’t have succeeded in selling those tickets if he hadn’t tried–and failed along the way. Now if I can help that lesson bleed into other aspects of our lives–like writing–without being overly didactic about the whole thing.

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