Excellence and Perfection

Can excellence exist without perfection?

Sign: Wisdom yes; perfectionism, noThe woman presenting a lecture on grit last night claimed that people who exhibit grit focus on the former rather than the latter. That sparked a lively discussion among some of her listeners. Some believe perfection must automatically be excellent. Why wouldn’t we strive for perfection? they asked.

I thought about the writers I’ve worked with over the years. So many get stuck because if they cannot compose the perfect sentence—and, spoiler alert, no one can compose a perfect sentence, certainly not on a first try—they’re afraid to write anything.

I thought about myself, when I’m learning a new skill. It’s much easier to stop trying at all than to confront my mediocre attempts.

In those cases, striving for perfection doesn’t produce excellence, it produces nothing.

As my friend (and not relative) Sam Bennett says: “Get a C.” Do something. Try. And if you fall short of excellence, congratulate yourself on being human. If improvement is important to you, then try again. And again after that (for 10,000 hours, if you believe the statistic Malcolm Gladwell misquoted). That’s grit.

Maybe at some point you’ll stumble onto excellence; maybe not. But perfection—if that’s your goal, you’ll never get anything creative done.

Breaking barriers, sportswriters edition

a footbal on a fieldI’m not a big fan of most sports, but I am a fan of sportswriters. They have to turn out crisp, interesting prose while paying attention to a game that, in some cases, will render all their crisp, interesting prose unusable if that hail Mary pass connects at the last second.

I recently found a new name to add to my pantheon of sportswriters: Elinor Kaine. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also a Smithie, like yours truly. Natalie Weiner wrote a long pre-Super Bowl piece about her this week; it’s worth a read.

Elinor was the first writer to follow the football beat. Here’s what one of her competitors had to say:

“There is something basically discomforting about a gal sportswriter…Too many times it’s just a gimmick; in Elinor Kaine’s case, though, it’s downright embarrassing. She’s good.”

Here’s some of her embarrassingly good prose:

“If it is taken two at a time, football can be broken down for spectating purposes into 11 individual duels. Watching one duel at a time is absorbing. Superb athletes, football players use finesse, quickness and cunning as much as size and strength. The mini-wars are violently sophisticated and highly unpredictable.”

She broke into sportswriting by founding her own football newsletter, the first publication of its kind to aggregate news about every football team in the country. Eventually, as the newsletter’s circulation grew—and her reputation along with it—bigger players in the media invited her to write regular columns. She even got a book deal. But one thing she couldn’t get was a fair shake.

When the Jets and the Giants played each other for the first time, at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Kaine had to sue for access to the press box. She won—but they shunted her into an area with a few folding chairs and nothing on which to set her typewriter, and thus no way to make her deadline.

“Elinor laughed at the pretensions of men who patronized women with their pseudo-expertise,” [Larry] Merchant [a newspaper columnist in Philadelphia] wrote on the occasion of Penna’s retirement from sportswriting. “She poked fun at the juvenile antics of grown men who played, coached and owned. She fleshed out the people hidden under all that armor and money.”

“She would come up with these anecdotes that ordinary sportswriters at the time wouldn’t care about, would never find out about,” he says now.

That, my friends, is good writing. And something all of us should be doing—find the anecdotes that others overlook and your work will always be surprising and memorable.

Shoes v. Ideas: what makes a great speech?

What makes a great speech? Is it the location? The scenery? The shoes you bought specifically for the occasion?

Or is it the words you say and the chain reaction of thoughts those words start in your listeners’ minds? Is it the ideas you spread? The change you make in the world?

The TED Talks tagline is “ideas worth spreading.” What? you’re probably thinking, you mean it’s not about the shoes?

No, I know you’re not thinking that. If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know I’m all about the words. Although, to be honest, I did wear a spectacular pair of lavender-and-green Fluevogs to deliver my TEDx Talk. (The link will take you to an equally spectacular pink-and-purple pair.)

If you have something important to say, it doesn’t matter if you show up barefoot in a one-room shack. As long as the audience is physically comfortable enough to listen to you…and as long as you say something worth hearing, everyone gets something valuable out of the experience.

the women who spoke with me at TEDxBayRidgeWomen
That’s me in the pink jacket

I did not deliver my TEDx Talk in the grandest of surroundings. That didn’t matter to me, because I knew this was the first time TEDx had come to this particular community. If you’re a smart organizer, you test the concept first: build it and see who comes.

Who came was a diverse range of people with stories worth sharing, ideas worth hearing, and a marvelous mix of audience members who laughed, applauded, and even took notes. One woman told me she’d come because a post I made in a Facebook group prompted her to buy a ticket and she was so glad she had.

Who left was a group of five speakers—nearly half the planned lineup—the night before the event. They took with them their high heels, one gorgeous gold-embroidered black velvet jacket, and an attitude that their ideas are only worth sharing in certain surroundings.

The organizer found a few replacement speakers at the last minute and, honestly, those talks—prepared and given in two hours flat—were among my favorites. One woman spoke about the culture of the Sherpas who help people climb Mt. Everest, as she had. One spoke about how the musical theater classes she teaches at a small public college help her students learn so much more than show tunes. A Native American poet spun a gripping piece of word-art out of thin air. Her theme, how we treat each other, acknowledged the wide gulf between the kind of people who would bail the night before the event, and those of us who stayed and shared our ideas and learned from each other.

Yes, it’s lovely to stand on a big stage in front of a velvet curtain and all. But it’s far lovelier—and leaves a more lasting impression—to say something meaningful. If you’re not doing that, no shoes in the world will save you.


I’ll be offering a program on Speechwriting for Speakers starting in January. If you’d like more information, send me a note through this form.

Creativity Corner #6 — Creative despair

I was so psyched for Thanksgiving weekend. Not just for the turkey and stuffing, but for the FOUR DAYS of unscheduled time, most of which I planned to spend with this personal project I’ve been working on. And then I fell into the Pit. You know which pit I mean: creative despair. Nearly 350 years ago, writer John Bunyan called it the Slough of Despond. When a man falls into it, Bunyan wrote,

“there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”

Yes, this Thanksgiving in addition to turkey and stuffing I had a triple-helping of “fears, doubts, and discouraging apprehensions” about my writing. I’m sure Bunyan had them too, which is how he knew so much about the Slough of Despond—but he climbed out of it and published a book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which has been in print continuously since the first edition in the 1670s. If you thought your work would have even half that long a life, you’d climb out of the pit and get back to work, wouldn’t you?

cover of Austin Kleon's book Keep GoingIf only it were that easy. I tried all the tricks I know: I called a writer friend and requested a pep talk. She reassured me and then we talked through what had thrown me in the Pit. I grabbed a book that’s been sitting on my shelf since its publication last spring—Austin Kleon’s Keep Going, excellent medicine for what ailed me. I turned to Dale Trumbore’s inspiring book about creation and anxiety, Staying Composed. I also went to movies and walked the dog and watched Law & Order: SVU marathons, and knitted.

And I wrote. For 15 minutes every single day, even when I definitely did not want to. Even if it was crap—which it mostly was. Even though every phrase I wrote seemed to say, in that taunting schoolyard lilt, “You’ll never solve your PROB-lem. You’ll never solve your PROB-lem.”

And then I did. I wrote something, partially inspired by my writer-friend’s pep talk, and I took it to my writing group and they agreed: it solved my PROB-lem. And I was out of the Pit and making progress once more.

I hate the Pit, but I know you can’t get to creativity without some creative despair. It’s inevitable. Climbing back out of the Pit is not inevitable, but only because so many people give up once they fall in. I knew that as long as I kept writing, I had a chance at getting out. And so do you.

Keep Going. It’s not just a good book, it’s great advice.

Rehearse and rehearse

“Four weeks, you rehearse and rehearse,
Three weeks and it couldn’t be worse,
One week—will it ever be right?
Then out of the hat, it’s that big first night.”

Hat tip to the ineffable Cole Porter, whose work I’ve loved for decades. I even sang those very words in a long-ago summer production of Kiss Me, Kate! (I played the maid.) So I am no stranger to rehearsal. I’ve even given a speech or two myself, and rehearsed those just as I advise my clients to.

man and a woman rehearsing a dance moveBut this process of rehearsing for my TEDx debut Sunday has been positively excruciating. I wrote the speech in a burst of inspiration back in October, but did I start learning it then? I’m sure you know the answer to that.

I corralled a bunch of colleagues to stay a few minutes after our in-person meeting last week so I could deliver the speech to a live audience. (Fenway has heard it lots but doesn’t offer much feedback.) Did I learn it then? Does two pages count?

For the last week I have been trying to stuff at least one page of text into my head every day. I finally have the whole 6.5 pages in there with less than four days to go. But now instead of spitting out a page or two at a time, I have to rehearse the whole thing, start to finish, however many times I can do it until I bore myself to sleep.

Next up will be finding the right shoes—running through the speech wearing each of the candidates. Then wearing the whole outfit. Then doing it while walking the dog, doing my dishes, walking around my house swinging my arms.

And each time my brain begs me to stop, I offer a silent apology to every client I’ve ever prodded to rehearse their speeches. I’m sorry if your rehearsals are as achingly boring as mine. But I’d rather rehearse myself to tears than step out on that stage and forget what I’m there to say.

I bet you would, too.

Excited vs Grateful

I’ve had a gratitude practice for probably four years now—every morning and evening, I write down three things I’m grateful for. I’ve cycled through several containers for this—plain journals, gratitude-specific journals, and finally ended up with one that combined the gratitude practice with a fully functioning work journal. Bingo!

After a few years, though, I noticed I’d stopped paying attention to that journal, so I decided it was time for a change. I ordered up a new journal, which also had space to start the day with gratitudes. But beside that familiar list was another one. And, honestly, it completely stumped me:

I’m excited about

journal page showing blanks for "I'm grateful for" and "I'm excited about"

Grateful, yes, I can reel off a dozen things I’m grateful for: the people I work with; the little red dog I snuggle with; the yummy food I eat; the safe, warm, beautiful place I live. I can break that list down and find a good 25 or 30 different things for which I’m grateful. But “excited left me stumped.” And then depressed—because, after all, what is life without excitement?

But does my life really lack excitement? True, I’m not planning to board a rocket ship or surf Niagara Falls, but I do have  a TEDx Talk coming up in December. That’s pretty exciting. And I get to see my friends and go to the theatre and celebrate the holidays. All fun things that I’m looking forward to. (And when they happen, I’ll be grateful for them, too.)

I’m content with my life—I walk the dog, write, walk the dog, eat, walk the dog, sleep. Sometimes other events pop up to vary my schedule, and I’m happy when that happens. Perhaps daily contentment > occasional excitement?

What do you think? What are you grateful for and/or excited about this holiday season?

Creativity Corner #5 — Best Week Ever

I’ve just finished what feels like my best week ever as a writer. I wrote two very different pieces (I’ve been working on both for two weeks) and I actually felt that they were more than just good; they might, in fact, be great.

Now when I say “finished,” I mean first drafts—not completed, ready to submit pieces, although I suspect they’re pretty close. And the rush of adrenaline, endorphins, whatever—elation!—coursing through me when I stepped away from the keyboard…well, it felt like I’d just rappelled down a waterfall and into a raging river. Not that I’ve ever done that, but my friend Melissa just did and posted such realistic pictures that I found myself holding my breath while scrolling through them.

Don’t get the idea that this two weeks of writing was all sunshine and buttercups. A lot of it was hard, especially the daily slog through the muck of my subconscious—the Willits have a swamp in my front yard. In fact, I think I only finished them this week because a writer friend stopped in for an overnight and seeing her working diligently at my dinner table made it impossible for me to pursue my usual goofing-off strategies. So I worked. And, to paraphrase a famous author, “She saw that it was Good.”

It’s funny, a couple of weeks ago, just before this writing spurt began, I had a free session with an energy coach. He works with people to unblock their stuff. About halfway through the call, he started talking about “the pain of writing.”

“Hold up, mister,” I said—or words to that effect. Writing is harder some times than others, but I don’t see it as painful. He reframed his question a couple of times, but I didn’t bite. And it wasn’t resistance; it was my truth.

Writing is not always easy, but it’s my choice to do it and I’m not in the habit of choosing pain. Work, yes; struggle, sometimes. Sometimes you spend more time playing Candy Crush than writing. But that’s not pain; it’s part of the process.

Have you ever felt that elation? Had a “Best Week Ever”? What’s it like for you?

Creativity Corner #4: Fear and Stasis

I haven’t made much progress with my revisions. Oh, I’ve been writing every day, nibbling around the edges. I’ve written several new openings for the book—think I may have finally settled on one I can live with, at least for now. And I separated out 20-ish pages for a retreat application and another seven or eight to submit for publication. That may seem like progress to you, but to me it seems like stasis—or perhaps like treading water. A lot of energy expended, but you’re not going anywhere.

The most consequential comment my writing coach gave me was that I should restructure the piece. Her reasoning seemed sound, so I committed to doing it. A month later, I haven’t even started. First, I told myself that to make a change that large would require that rarest of rarities in a writer’s life: Uninterrupted Time. Not only that, but the Uninterrupted Time should probably take place somewhere other than my house. I’ve had my eye on some chic, Scandinavian-type trailer “cottages”—one step away from camping. Now I’ve mentally added Money to the things preventing me from doing this work.

Eventually, I caught on to my self-sabotage. I set aside a weekend—not an entirely uninterrupted weekend (I wouldn’t have those until baseball season ends), but a weekend nevertheless. I would devote myself to the manuscript. Maybe after that massage I rescheduled for Saturday. What happened? Well, my house finally got cleaned.

No, something else happened too: I realized that one of the things keeping me from restructuring the manuscript is fear. (I mean, duh. But when you’re in the middle of the fear, it’s rarely that obvious.) Although my coach offered sound reasons for restructuring the piece, I’m afraid she may be wrong. But Fear overplayed its hand on Sunday morning when it told me that reordering the manuscript would “ruin” it. Ruin? Like I’m not smart enough to make a digital copy before I start cutting it up?

So I’ve started the manuscript, because

1) she may be right.

2) she may be wrong, but I don’t know how else to structure it. Maybe pulling the piece apart will help me put it back together in a more compelling way.

I’m doing the work sitting at my very own desk in my very own house. While I started with a great swath of time on Sunday, I’ll continue in whatever bits of free time I have. Fear is a shifty, sly thing, but I’m going to win in the end.

Creativity Corner #3: No falling in love

I did my job—I turned out a first draft. I knew it was far from final, but still there were some parts I found myself returning to frequently, proud of the ideas or a turn of phrase. I sent it out to my writing coach for feedback, but I wasn’t going to see her for another two weeks. I knew I needed to take a break from writing for a while, but I kept opening up the document, re-reading my favorite parts. Uh oh, I thought. Better not fall in love.
Falling in love with a first draft is as helpful as marrying someone midway through your first date. It may be good fodder for a reality show, but it’s disastrous in real life. I knew this even as I congratulated myself for being clever, even as I saw a t-shirt bearing a somewhat obscure phrase that I’d made central to one of my favorite passages. I bought the shirt. Even if the phrase didn’t survive editing, at least it looks good.
As I write this, I cannot tell you if that phrase will survive. I sent the manuscript, well, 80% of it, to my writing coach and she gently told me exactly what I’d expected: there’s a lot of good material there, but I need to restructure the story. I won’t know how radically that changes the bits I liked until I figure out a different way to start the book. Small detail, right?
I’m still working on it. At the moment, I have four different openings—maybe, when I review what I wrote over lunch today, five. I fully understand that I may get to 50 before the great Aha! The writer Mary Karr said she worked on the first paragraph of her first memoir, Liars Club, for eight months before she was satisfied enough to continue. I don’t usually recommend that approach for a first draft—in my opinion, it’s better to get the material OUT than to obsess about getting every word right. But Karr is now known as an exceptional memoirist, so she clearly knew what she was doing.
Stay tuned.

Creativity Corner #2: Find your idea

In the last installment, our Heroine found herself a writing class.

Being in a writing class boosted my self-confidence and gave me some self-imposed deadlines. And I met them: bringing in three or more pages of new writing for each class. I thought of these things as essays; they seemed too slight to be book chapters. I wasn’t yet sure I had a central idea. But I remembered enough of what I tell the writers who work with me that I decided it didn’t matter WHAT I wrote; it only mattered THAT I wrote.

So I plugged on, writing my essays. And then I got a nudge from a playwright I’d worked with briefly in college. Maria Irene Fornés, a Cuban émigrée, made unique contributions to the Greenwich Village theatre scene in the 1960s. She passed away several years ago, but this summer the City Center Encores Off-Center program did a concert staging of the one musical she contributed to—a bizarre and jaw-droppingly absurd thing called Promenade.

Irene wrote the lyrics and book (the script) and she did it in what seemed to me a miraculous fashion. She wrote the character names on index cards, one name per card, and then wrote various plot points, again one per card. Then she shuffled the cards and drew them at random: the results became the “plot” of the show—quotation marks because I recognize that not everyone would call it that.

By the time I’d left the theatre—or at least by the time I’d gotten home—I realized that this book I’d had in my head for so long didn’t have to be chronological. So what if it jumped around the decades like a rogue Tardis. Irene gave me permission to tell my story in any way I wished. The next day, I sat down at my computer with a completely different attitude: my first pages after that may have been tentative, but it wasn’t long before even I had to acknowledge I was writing a book.

Between that revelation in mid-July and the end of August, about six weeks later, my first draft had grown to over 60,000 words. I knew they wouldn’t all survive the revision process, but I was and am proud of my work.

I kept going, day after day, carefully monitoring any doubt that surfaced. “It’s not my job to judge this now,” I told my writing. “My job is just to write.”

And so by the beginning of September I was ready for the next stage.