Precise, and soft at the edges

Red chairOverheard: A young instructor, after lab this week, to a another instructor, “My relationship to perfectionism has changed since I’ve become paralyzed.” She is in a wheelchair.

I hadn’t yet been part of this conversation. My ears perked up, I shuffled over, and I said to her, “You could write about that. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything with any personal insight into that topic from your point of view.”

We talked for a while about laundry folding and kitchen arrangement. Except for me, the group was made up of engineers, people whose work depends on attention to detail. When does attention to detail become perfectionism? I suspect there’s a continuum.

When I have been characterized as perfectionist, it feels like an accusation. The person saying it doesn’t admire the trait or its outcome (e.g., neatly folded sheets in the linen closet, a well-edited memo). Or it’s a way of distinguishing him or herself from me, as in, “You (Jane) are so uptight. I am easy-going.”

I don’t think of myself as desiring perfection, per se. Yet I do desire — and like, feel peaceful with — order, thoroughness, and the well-wrought detail.

Funny, I just had an impulse to make an annotated inventory of what parts of life or the physical world seem more pleasing to me if they are in line with my standards. It might start like this:

  • kitchen cabinets: stuff should be categorized, not stuffed-in randomly
  • closets and bureaus: neat, folded, unstuffed
  • desk: clear surface, things put away
  • yard: neat, trimmed, branches picked up — however, I don’t like a precise, manicured look — there has to be softness around the edges… and yet there are edges…
  • natural world: I like to see fallen branches, puddles, rusted cans among leaves, and yet I usually get to these places via a well-made path, which I like
  • writing: I prefer a fully-explored draft, even over-stuffed with ideas or information and long sentences, yet I want a finished piece to have shape, flow, grammar, and an absence of cliché, which to me is a kind of inexcusable clutter

Toilet outdoorsAs time passes, and therefore there is less time in front of me, I let some perfectionist tendencies go. One does this also as a parent, as soon as you recognize that your infant is a wild thing. Students, too, have minds of their own.

But I hang on to others — performance at work and art and in the primary relationship(s) — and in some ways exacting standards are hampering.

To chew on some more.

—–
Photos taken October 21, 2012 at Allandale Farm by me.

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4 Responses to Precise, and soft at the edges

  1. PJS says:

    Do you ever wish that you were not such a perfectionist? Sometimes it’s exhausting. I’m a perfectionist about some things (writing is one of them) and there are times when I know that the prudent, practical thing to do is say, “Good enough!” but I’m compelled to keep aligning, honing, polishing.

    • jelizabeth says:

      I do wish that sometimes, yes. But then I am so pleased with some of the things I do. Like writing. Part of my pleasure comes from that aligning, honing, polishing… and, for me, restructuring.

  2. Barbara says:

    I’m a bit of the opposite…not sure what this says about me…fear that perhaps achieving perfection, what is perfect is less than stellar? I write pieces and revise them but then just stop though I don’t necessarily think it’s perfect? I love the challenge of clearing and sorting a cluttered desk, and in a few moments, clutter slowly creeps in….

  3. jelizabeth says:

    The thing is: perfect is impossible. In writing, I don’t like to stop until I am done — but “done” is different for all of us. I have learned to ask for feedback earlier. This is one way I have modified my perfectionism. I used to wait for a long time to ask another writer or colleague for a response to what I wrote. Now I try to get them in early on, when a piece is still malleable. It hurts less, actually, to get early feedback.

    Clutter happens to me, too, Barbara. That’s probably good, because I too like the challenge of clearing and sorting.

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