Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Word perfection

My thoughts are a hollow log drifting downstream, along riverside curves, heading nowhere in particular except where the force of water pulls. At times, carried along in the swift current, at times bumping up against the shore, and at times becoming tangled in the wispy arms of a tree's low-lying branches cast near the water's edge. My thoughts know not their destination, or even the direction of their journey. I wish they did. It is not my specialty to chase the trails of stream-of-consciousness. I inwardly groaned at these assignments in grad school. So stereotypical, I thought, for counselors to evaluate stream-of-consciousness. So reminiscent of those old black and white films of Freud we'd watch in high school psychology classes and make fun of. Why does it have to be so difficult?

I've always liked my thoughts to be orderly and well-constructed, whether written or spoken. It used to be that, when sitting down to write a rough draft of a paper, it would take me hours - literally, hours of painful contemplation - before I could even put a few words down. The first paragraph often took me nearly as long to compose as the entire remainder of my paper. Very rarely did I do extensive revisions of my first draft, because I felt I had to do it right the first time. I'd correct a few spelling errors, rearrange a few sentences, add a few quotes or points here, take a statement out there, and Voila!, I was done.

The same was true of my speaking. I use the past tense because I've gotten a little bolder (though, equally, perhaps less careful) with my words over the years. I think before I speak, but I also jump in with my thoughts and opinions much more quickly than I did in my younger days. When I was younger, I'd listen to a conversation, trying to arrange my thoughts in the best way possible, and by the time I did, the moment had often passed. Conversation moved on, and I kept my lips shut, trying to keep up with it.

As I write these thoughts, it occurs to me: I've grown more confident in my skin over the years, less bound to the idea of perfection (though it certainly still raises its annoying head), less likely to second-guess my words (though I can still go back and replay things over and over again), less in need of pleasing everyone (though I sometimes worry too much about offending with my honesty). It also occurs to me that this aversion to free-flowing thought and spontaneous writing can be, well, a hindrance. Perhaps even a control issue, fighting against myself, instead of letting go. When I don't know what to write or what to say, I'd rather clam up then open up and let the thoughts flow freely, untamed. And then I think, perhaps I am really not much of a reformed perfectionist. Better than I was, I suppose, with lots and lots of room to grow.

If I lived in the same manner I wrote, I would still be relying too heavily on that illusive "perfect" construction of words and ideas into sentences, into paragraphs, into chapters, into a story, instead of letting myself bump along with the river current and settle in for the ride.

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