Ugly, Wild & Free!

In high school I took singing lessons. One of my biggest struggles in singing lessons, which should not surprise anyone who knows me,  was to loosen up. I tried to control my tone and pitch by being forceful with my voice, and far from improving things, it actually made it worse.

My singing teacher… Mrs Berry… was a patient woman. She devised several exercises to help my problem, and as I sat down this evening to write I was reminded of one in particular. She told me to sing a musical scale as ugly and wild as possible; to go completely over-the-top without worrying about how terrible it sounded.

I was awful at this exercise!

Why you ask? Well I do not knowingly or willingly submit to error. I am a perfectionist through and through. I scrutinize everything I do, including writing. That also includes first drafts (in which I am currently immersed) that are by their very nature, shitty! I use the word shitty because there is a brilliant chapter in Anne Lamott’ s book Bird by Bird called ‘Shitty First Drafts’. It states:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Wow, right! I take from this statement several truths, with which of course, I also simultaneously struggle. It is true that a first draft will always need to be revised, no matter how good it is. And it is also true that perfectionism harms the creative effort; impeding the creative flow itself. Hence, ironically, my attempts to make my first draft more perfect have actually resulted in it becoming more shitty than it would have been if I’d only loosened up a bit and let myself be creative.

If we can return to the singing exercise for the moment: yes – I was awful at it! I was absolutely awful at being awful! But I regularly found after that exercise, when we moved onto something else, that I sounded much better than before. Even the very teeny-tiny bit I was able to loosen up meant that I was so much better at singing. In short, the uglier and wilder I became, the better I sounded.

And so it occurred to me that instead of attempting to write a first draft that is full or errors, and totally against who I am as a person; I should make it big, ugly and wild, just like my singing. Therefore, it appears that for those of us who are such strong perfectionist characters that we can’t imagine writing something profoundly blemished in the first place, it is not about accepting error but accepting something else – freedom!

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