We may remember mostly the long, stupid look at the material before us, and then maybe a kind of slow, emotional thinking. That is a lonely, helpless feeling.
— William Stafford, from his acceptance speech for the National Book Award, 1963.
I believe I’ve mentioned that we struggle with perfectionism in this house. Every time I confront Nick’s, I need to have it out with mine. (The operative metaphor is putting the oxygen mask on yourself before your child.)
I have many antidotes for perfectionism, as many are needed. One of them is the following story about the poet William Stafford. Stafford was a marvelous writer. His poem, “A Story That Could be True,” was featured here a few posts back.
Nick may not be ready for this story, so I’m leaving it here for him to find someday:
Stafford wrote a poem every day. His method was simple. He got up in the morning and wrote for an hour. Then, if necessary, he worked another hour before bedtime and finished the poem.
Once, a student of Stafford’s sensed a problem with this plan, and began asking questions.
“So, you work a second hour at night and then what?” he said.
“Then I go to bed,” said Stafford.
“Well, what do you do if the poem isn’t finished after the second hour?”
“They’re all finished,” said Stafford.
“But what if the method doesn’t work?”
“It always works,” said Stafford.
There was a pause. Now the student shook his head and gestured with his hands.
“Mr. Stafford, I might try to finish something in an hour or two. But sometimes the poem doesn’t want to be finished.”
“What do you mean?” Stafford said.
“I mean, what if you can’t do it? What if the poem isn’t good enough after a couple of hours? What do you do if the poem isn’t good enough?”
“Oh, I see,” said Stafford. “In that case I just lower my standards.”
You might also enjoy:
Listen to Stafford reading A Ritual to Read to Each Other
I love your comments and questions. Please add them below. I (nearly) always write a response here.