Friday, November 6, 2009

On Trying to Do Too Much

If you know me in person, you're probably aware that I am a perfectionist--and even if we've never met, you might get that impression of me just from reading this blog. Lately I've been contemplating my perfectionistic tendencies--my habit of trying to do too much, of thinking that everything I create needs to be stunningly original and word-perfect and complex and insightful. And I'm realizing just how detrimental that is. My perfectionism, that is, my fear, is slowing me down.

These reflections were prompted by going to see a new play called Zombie Town, by my blogfriend Tim Bauer. Zombie Town has a fun structural conceit: it asks us to believe that about a year ago, a zombie uprising actually took place in a small town in Texas, and that afterwards, a troupe of actors from San Francisco traveled to the town, interviewed the survivors, and made a documentary theater piece. And that is ostensibly the play that we are seeing performed. This amusing idea allows Tim to make fun of both the small-town Texans and the pretentious San Franciscans, and also offers a way around the difficulty of showing a zombie apocalypse onstage. It's The Laramie Project, but with zombies! Take a hook like that, develop it well, and you've got a good play on your hands.

But, I realized, the thing is that if I had come up with this idea, I wouldn't have developed it well. I'd have tried to do too much. At first, I would've dismissed out of hand the idea of writing a zombie play: "You're the wrong person to write it, Marissa," I'd tell myself. "You're not a horror fan and your audience is sure to have seen way more zombie movies than you have!" But then, if the idea kept niggling at my mind, insisting that I had to write this play, I would go too far in the opposite direction. I'd convince myself that I couldn't write it until I had learned everything there was to know about the history of zombies in popular culture--watching the most notable zombie films so that I could then either pay homage to them, or avoid plagiarizing them. I would get so enthralled with the metatheatrical conceit that I would give all of the characters an elaborate backstory that slowly got revealed over the course of the evening. I would probably burden the play with some kind of overarching metaphorical structure about the Significance and Meaning of Zombies in the 21st Century.

In short, I would be a Pretentious San Francisco Playwright.

But Tim is not pretentious, which allows him to skewer his characters' pretensions all the more effectively, and to write a fast-moving, entertaining zombie comedy without looking over his shoulder the whole time and wondering if he's doing it right. His play gave us what we wanted and was never lumbering or ponderous; but I have this feeling that if I had started with the same conceit, I would have overworked it and come up with a play that was much baggier and more complex, less sheerly fun. And the writing process would have been agony the whole way through.

Similar thoughts occurred to me after reading the short story in last week's New Yorker, called "While the Women are Sleeping," by Javier Marías. Have you read it? Es bueno. In it, a first-person narrator describes meeting some strange people while on vacation with his wife. And I really enjoyed the story while I was reading it, but then I started to second-guess myself. "We don't learn anything about what kind of a person the narrator is," I thought. "He's obviously meant to be normal, an Everyman, a stand-in for the reader, in contrast to the weird guy he meets at the beach--but isn't it lazy, to write a narrator who has no personality?" But then I realized, maybe I wouldn't want to read a whole novel narrated by this guy, but it's just fine for a short story. I didn't notice the narrator's lack of personality when I was reading and liking the story--only afterward, when I started to nitpick it to death. (And upon further reflection--the narrator's passivity might make the end of the story more effective.) And so, again: if I had written this short story, I'd have expended way too much effort in trying to give the narrator a unique personality, and the result would be overdetermined.

So yeah, in my writing, I have a bad habit of wanting to do too much. Which means it's ironic, isn't it, that I've set myself the task of writing a blog post every day this month--isn't that a symptom of doing too much? Well, no, actually. Instead, I'm hoping that NaBloPoMo will have the opposite effect on me. If I write only a few blog posts a week, I can convince myself that everything I post has to be lengthy, brilliant, word-perfect, etc. But if I blog every day, I will have no choice but to post some things that aren't perfect. To post a video with limited commentary as opposed to a beautifully argued essay that over-explains everything. To write shorter posts or more humorous ones. Or, if I write a longer post, to have it ramble and be self-critical and perhaps "not of general interest." Like the post you have just read.

No comments: