Perfectly Imperfect

                                               

I’m planning a trip to Japan. I’m not sure when I’ll go, but it’s on my longish short list of destinations to visit. “You must go in spring,” a friend told me the other day. “It’s a perfect time.”

Perfection seems to be the theme of the week. Maybe it’s the way the stars are aligning, or maybe February calls on our inner perfectionist, or maybe it’s simply coincidence. Whatever the reason, people seem to be tossing the idea of perfection around like happy celebrants tossing confetti at a wedding.

It’s starting to annoy me. Not the celebratory confetti thing; that sounds like fun. Although, having just googled confetti and the environment, I should probably find another simile. Or is it a metaphor? . . .

Now back from five minutes of checking the difference between simile and metaphor and thinking maybe I should scrap this idea entirely lest I make a mistake and write an imperfect blog.

There it is, the whole perfection/imperfection thing cropping up again.

Full disclosure: I have been known to have (cough, cough) perfectionistic tendencies, especially in a few areas of my life (those who know me well can stop laughing now). It’s a tendency I’m trying hard to overcome. That’s why my house is currently a mess (at least, that’s my excuse).

I didn’t start the week thinking about perfection. First, there was that conversation with a friend about Japan and the perfect time to go. Then there was an interview and tour I did for a feature on a new home build. The home is stunning. It could – and probably someday will – grace the cover of Architectural Digest Magazine. The word perfect was bandied about a lot during my tour, including a few apologies for areas that ‘weren’t quite perfect yet.’ Finally, there was a walk with friends where I learned that Bruce Springsteen has hair plugs (I’m not sure how I survived this long without knowing that, but amazingly I did). That morphed into a conversation about his plastic surgery which led someone to comment that they’d much rather watch him perform with a full head of hair and no wrinkles. He would be perfect that way.

We were walking in the woods when I learned about Springsteen. It had rained heavily overnight; the trail was muddy and littered with leaves. The trees around us were bent and twisted. Moss and Old Man’s Beard dangled haphazardly from the occasional branch, waiting for wind or a forager to carry it away.  Nothing about the view was perfect, yet it was perfect in its imperfection, as nature always is.

Our culture promotes the idea of perfection. We’re told everything can be improved: our bodies, homes, and relationships, to name only three. In the middle of writing this, I received an email from a local garden retailer extolling the virtues of the perfect patio plants now available to order. A few weeks ago, I learned that women in their thirties are getting Botox or ‘soft’ facelifts as a preventive measure to avoid ‘future imperfections.’

In Japan, they have something called wabi-sabi. An integral part of their culture, it’s the practice of celebrating and embracing imperfections. In fact, the Japanese have dedicated a 400-year-old art form – kintsugi – to putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold. Kintsugi is designed to highlight the ‘scars’ and to create something more unique, more beautiful and even more resilient in spite of its apparent inadequacy. Many of the antique bowls used in the Japanese tea ceremony have cracks, uneven glazes and imperfect shapes. And they are highly prized for their supposed deficiencies.

When I write novels, I’m always careful to develop characters with flaws. Most writers I know are careful to do that too. We recognize at a deep level that flawed characters are more believable, more relatable, and more likeable. Yet it can be a real challenge to accept and let our own imperfections show.

That, I decided, was the lesson of this week. In a culture that favours the flawless, the perfect, the hair plugs or preventative Botox injections, I need to honour the beauty of imperfection. I need to let the housework go for a little longer still. Let the dirt collect a bit more in the corners. And I also need to book that trip to Japan. Even if I can’t figure out the perfect time to go.

The Likeability Factor

I got together with two friends for a visit last weekend. We hadn’t seen each other in quite a while; we have a wide range of interests and busy lives, so we had lots to catch up on. Eventually, the conversation turned to books and movies . . . what we were reading, what we were watching. And since the Academy Award nominations had been announced earlier that week, we began discussing which of the movies we planned to see, if any.

This year, there’s one movie I’m not sure I’ll watch: The Banshees of Inisherin.  Written and directed by Martin McDonagh and starring Colin Firth and Brendan Gleeson, the movie is set on a remote Irish island and tells the story of two lifelong friends who drifted apart after the end of the 1923 Irish Civil War. It is not, by all accounts, a feel-good film. It is described, at best, as bleak. It’s also a movie that seems to evoke particularly strong emotions. Those who love it rave about it. Those who hate it do so with a passion.  

“I wonder how the screenwriter feels?” I wondered aloud to my friends. “To have produced something so many people dislike?”

“There’s no guarantee something you create will be well-received,” one friend responded.

“And it’s been nominated for an Academy Award,” my second friend added. “So not everyone disliked it.”

They were both right. However, too many negative reviews of a movie, a book, an art installation or any other creative venture can mean the difference between success and failure. And by success, I don’t mean public accolades and praise, but the kind of success that allows an artist to make a living, even a modest one, and carry on with their craft. For a writer, a book that draws significant negative reviews won’t sell well, which could mean no contract on their next book. These two women aren’t writers, but they’ve been my friends long enough to understand some of how publishing works. They were sympathetic.

After a minute, one of them said, “Maybe society needs to reframe the idea that disliking something is bad.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know what they say – if everyone likes you, you’re not living an authentic life.” She paused just long enough for us to reflect on that. And then she said, “Maybe it’s the same for art. If everybody likes what you produce, how authentic can it be?”

I know, intellectually, that tastes vary. Not everyone will love the same book or movie or song. The same food, the same colour, the same breed of dog. And yet, as a creator, I want people to love what I produce. So, if I’m truly honest with myself, anything less than that feels like a failure.

But my friend helped me see a simple yet profound truth: Something that is truly authentic is never a failure. It may not appeal to the masses; it may not be a critical or commercial success. But it can still be meaningful, it can still touch people, it can still convey feelings and reveal big truths. In the same way that authenticity in relationships is where we find our true joy, authenticity in creativity is where we find our true success.  

I still don’t know whether I’ll watch The Banshees of Inisherin. Apparently, people leave the theatre crying, and I don’t need sadness in my life right now. But I do need authenticity. So maybe I’ll pack up my Kleenex and go.

Wintering

                                        

“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through.

Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight, but that’s where the transformation occurs.

Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”

Katherine May

Last weekend, I went on a yoga retreat, one focused on honouring Winter Solstice. The women running the event decided to hold the retreat in January even though Winter Solstice is the third week in December. Their reasoning? December is an extremely busy month, and early January felt more appropriate somehow. My busyness lasted well into January, so retreating at the end of that first week was the perfect fit for me.

The day was about letting go, slowing down and getting still, something that doesn’t always come easily to many of us. Katherine May talks about this in her book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. While I’ve only just started reading it, the book encourages us to find joy in the quiet of winter and accept life as cyclical, not linear. She writes: In winter, I want concepts to chew over in a pool of lamplight – slow, spiritual reading, a reinforcement of the soul. Winter is a time for libraries, for the muffled quiet of book stacks, and for the scent of old pages and dust.

I’m not so sure about old pages and dust, but the idea of slow, spiritual reading and libraries definitely resonates. As I write this, the wind is howling and the rain is lashing at the skylight; it’s a day to curl up inside. Writers – probably most artists when I think about it – are comfortable with solitude. I certainly am; I need it to do my work. For the last six months or so, though, I’ve been out in the world far more than usual, and it upended my natural rhythm and definitely negatively impacted my writing. So, for me, ‘wintering,’ pulling the metaphorical shades and getting back in touch with the cyclical nature of life and of my creative muse, feels appropriate.

Not everyone likes winter; I realize that. For those of you who find this season difficult, I leave you with this quote from John Geddes:

The Sound of Music

                                        

On November 16, 1959, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music debuted on Broadway. As many people know, it was based on a true story – the 1949 memoir of Maria von Trapp which told the story of the von Trapp family singers from Austria. But like most adaptations of true stories, liberties were taken in the stage (and later the movie) production.

For instance, did you know:

There were 10 von Trapp children, not seven, and Marie came as a tutor for one of the children rather than as a governess for all of them. As well, Maria and Captain von Trapp were married 11 years before the family left Austria. But perhaps the most significant historical inaccuracy was the film’s climactic ending, where the family escapes to Switzerland over the Alps as the Nazis invade Austria. In reality, the family pretended they were going on vacation to Italy by train the day before the Austrian borders were closed. And once they arrived in Italy, they made plans to travel to the US.

When it comes to fictionalizing memoirs or moments in time, it’s been said that emotional truths are more important than factual ones, and that seems to be the case for the von Trapps. Family members accepted virtually all of the liberties taken in telling the fictionalized version of their stepmother’s story, except for one. They didn’t like how their father was portrayed. In the first half of the movie and stage production, the patriarch is shown as a detached and often harsh taskmaster, when in fact, he was a gentle, warmhearted parent who enjoyed the musical activities with his children.

That small quibble wasn’t enough to prevent the real Maria von Trapp from making a brief cameo appearance in the film version of The Sound of Music. If you look carefully, you can see her walking past an archway while Julie Andrews sings “I Have Confidence.”

The Element of Surprise

                                             

A few weeks ago, four of us went out for dinner. We went to Mahle House in Cedar (which I highly recommend!) to enjoy something called Chef’s Adventurous Wednesdays. Billed as a five-course adventure menu, each diner receives a different item for each course, and you don’t know what you’re getting until the plate is put in front of you. Though the restaurant can accommodate gluten-free, pescetarian and vegetarian diets, realistically, the evening wouldn’t work for picky eaters or people who don’t like surprises.

We knew we would be fed, and we knew, based on the restaurant’s reputation, that we were in good hands, but we didn’t know what we’d be eating. So, we’d discussed ahead of time the option of trading plates if someone was served something they truly disliked (for me, that would be oysters or lamb). Luckily, we were all extremely happy with what we were given, though I gave away my dessert crème Brule, but only because I’m not a fan of sweets at the best of times and rarely order them.

We had a fantastic evening out. The element of surprise elevated the night from enjoyable to memorable.  

In storytelling, the element of surprise is an important one. It allows the writer to heighten dramatic tension, add suspense, and introduce humour. It keeps the reader engaged. Surprises also tend to stick in readers’ minds, helping them to remember the story. I recently read Jodi Picoult’s Wish You Were Here, and there was a surprising twist I didn’t see coming that spun the story in a completely different direction. It’s not something I’m likely to forget. The surprise was also credible – which is essential – and in keeping with Picoult’s particular style or brand of storytelling.   

A well-crafted surprise in fiction can take you on an unforgettable journey of discovery. A well-thought-out surprise at the dinner table can take you on an unforgettable journey of discovery too. And both are well worthwhile!

September is the New January

In case you haven’t seen a calendar lately, heads up: tomorrow is September 1st. And while the asters are blooming in my garden and the days are still warm, there’s a hint of cool in the early morning air; fall is definitely coming.

September always feels like a fresh start to me, a new beginning. Like every new beginning (writing that first chapter or painting that first stroke, leaving on a journey, witnessing a birth), there’s anticipatory joy and excitement. Out with the old and in with the new. New seems to be a running theme around here. In the last three weeks, I’ve needed to replace my cell phone and my laptop, and I’ve put four badly-needed new tires on the car too. I’m considering them my new year expenses.

I’m not alone in thinking of September as the start of a new year. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is one of Judaism’s holiest days, begins this year on September 25th.  The literal translation is ‘head of the year’ or ‘first of the year.’  

The ancient Egyptians considered September 11th the start of the new year. In fact, this September will mark the year 6264 in the Egyptian calendar.

Fresh starts are good for us. They can lead to greater productivity and more willingness to embrace change, and that, in turn, can be empowering.

Plato said beginnings are the most important part of the work. They frame everything that comes after.

So, here’s to September. May this new month bring us all renewed energy, enthusiasm and opportunities!  

And Here We Go . . .

Author Dean Wesley Smith calls it The Time of Great Forgetting – that stretch between now and the end of August when writing routines get torpedoed because of outside influences. That could be anything from the lure of family reunions or friends visiting from out of town, the pull of the garden and all things outdoors, or even travel, depending on your Covid comfort level. Writing conferences and workshops, in spite of being a part of our professional life, can be a distraction too, especially if travel is involved. And if you have kids at home, it goes without saying that a regular writing routine is much harder to maintain during summer holidays.

Distractions aren’t limited to the spring and summer; they can happen anytime. On the upside, the writing life is flexible, making it easy to respond. But there can be a downside to that flexibility too. Lines can get blurred. For instance, someone who started working at home during the pandemic commented that his work and his other life bled together ‘like a tie-dye sweatshirt.’ Depending on the type of distraction you’re facing, and how you respond, creative routines can slide or even become completely eroded.

You might be fine with letting them go for a few months. But if not, here are a few things that help me maintain focus when life dishes the distractions.

Creating a schedule and (mostly) sticking to it. That used to be Monday to Friday, nine to three (a hold-over from when my kids were in school). I still aim for that, with a couple of exceptions: an early morning walk with a group of neighbourhood women once a week; and the occasional (once or twice a month) Friday afternoon lunch or coffee date with a friend.

Writing in the morning and leaving the business side of writing (research, social media, blogging) for the afternoon. It takes discipline and a little planning, but it’s doable.

Scheduling ahead when and where possible. I try to write, upload and schedule my blog a week ahead (or longer if I’m going away). Tweets can be scheduled in advance too, a bonus for getting a jump on promotion or simply trying to maintain a social media presence. But the latter can also be something of a gamble. If the tone of your scheduled tweets is upbeat and light, and they appear around the time something horrible hits the news (and you forget or can’t take them down), it could reflect poorly on you.

Grouping tasks and appointments. Some things like vet or doctor appointments inevitably crop up during working hours. When I can’t schedule them for the end of the day, I try for afternoon appointments, and I try to fit in another task (picking up a hold at the library or visiting the post office) at the same time.

Being satisfied with small steps. I may not have a full or half-day, but with thirty minutes, I can read over the last scene I wrote and make a few notes in the margin.  A few minutes a day on peripheral work can keep the story in my mind and make it easier to return to later.

Learning to say no. It’s not always easy, especially when you’ll disappoint someone. But there are times to be available to others and times when we need to be available to ourselves. We sometimes forget that.  

And finally, remember that everything is temporary. This, too, shall pass. Repeat as needed.

A Question of Light and Dark

An artist friend recently displayed two versions of a scene she’d painted – one was dark, rich and moody, while the other was a lighter, fresher portrayal of the same image. She asked us to state which we preferred. The feedback was mixed, but slightly more people liked the darker image than the lighter one. Artists particularly gravitated to the darker scene and, in one case, pointed to the depth of saturation as a reason for their choice. Both images were gorgeous, and it was hard to choose one over the other. But for me, having just lived through a dark and wet weekend that included a six-hour power outage, I craved something light. My need for sunshine and uplift reminded me of a recent newsletter written by foodie and cookbook author Laura Calder. You can read her post here:   https://www.lauracalder.com/april-2022

In part of her newsletter, Calder writes about leaving on vacation just as the Russians attacked Ukraine. She wrestled with whether or not it was in bad taste to post happy holiday shots on social media when there was so much pain and suffering in the world. Ultimately, believing that negativity needs to be beaten back with some delight or everyone would go mad, she decided to share some of her joy. “We have as much of a moral obligation to appreciate beauty, pleasure, and goodness when they’re presented to us as we do to confront evil and destruction when they show up on our path,” Calder wrote. “In fact, when we’re down in the dumps or anxious, it’s more important than ever to keep our senses sharpened for perceiving love and loveliness, because these can be the only things that keep us going.”

My artist friend who posted her work for us to see is just one of many creatives I know who continue to paint, play music, create mosaics and write books, among many other artistic pursuits. With the world feeling quite dark these days, it may feel indulgent or superfluous to do those things, and yet, as Laura Calder reminds us, there are times when a single touch of loveliness or one spot of brightness truly can keep us going.  

The Pencil is Mightier Than the Pen

                    

March 30th is National Pencil Day. I don’t usually give pencils much thought; I’m more of a pen fanatic. But as soon as I found out that a day was set aside to honor the lowly pencil, I did a little digging into pencil trivia. And here’s what I learned: The average pencil can be sharpened 17 times, draw a line 50 kilometers long and can write roughly 45,000 words. To put that word length to the test, a group of volunteers at the Hollidaysburg Public Library in Pennsylvania came together to copy To Kill a Mockingbird word-for-word with one pencil. They started May 4th 2007 and finished on June 6th of the same year.

An average-sized tree can make 300,000 pencils.

Although the content of a pencil is referred to as lead, pencils actually don’t contain lead. They contain a mix of graphite and clay.

Before the eraser was invented, people used balls of moistened bread or breadcrumbs to remove their mistakes.

Originally, pencils were only manufactured to be round, but people were frustrated by the fact that the pencils often rolled off surfaces. So, the popular hexagon shape was introduced.

More than 14 billion pencils are produced in the world annually. That’s enough to circle the globe 62 times.

Do you know why most pencils are yellow? In the 19th century, the best graphite came from China, and in China, the color yellow is associated with royalty and respect. So, to give off a luxurious, high-quality vibe, American manufacturers started painting their pencils yellow.

And finally, I was surprised to learn how many authors have favored pencils over pens, including William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck, Mary Norris, Henry David Thoreau and Earnest Hemmingway to mention only a few. that’s probably because pencils don’t bleed, burst, run dry or freeze like ink pens do. For that reason, Margaret Atwood sites pencil-carrying during travel as one of her number one rules for writers. 

Take a pencil to write with on airplanes,” she writes.  “Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the planes because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore, take two pencils.”

I’m going to try a pencil. Maybe it will make my points clearer!

Happy Spring

This Sunday, March 20th, marks the spring or vernal equinox.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, that means the days are getting longer, and daylight takes over the darkness.

In many cultures, the spring equinox is observed as the start of the New Year.  It only makes sense. Birds are nesting and starting families.  Trees are leafing out.  It’s a time of rebirth, regrowth and new beginnings.

Some creative types believe that the natural rhythm of this time of year – the increasing warmth of the sun and the equal length of day and night – actually gives us more energy to create. It’s a perfect time, they say, to plant metaphorical seeds as well as real ones.  

As a gardener and a writer, I love that idea. But something I sometimes forget is that seeds need time and the right conditions to sprout. Some require a cold stretch before the warmth nudges them to shoot out, while others want only heat to emerge. Creative ideas seem to be the same. While some come on quickly, in the heat of the moment, most creative ideas require a bit of percolating before they’re ready to germinate. And then, once those ideas do sprout, they need careful tending.

Right now, I’m tending metaphorical seeds (of a book) I planted a while back. This particular story has been a struggle but I’m hoping that if I prune and shape and carefully tend it, it will flourish in the same way a plant damaged by winter wind and cold comes back. And as I do that, I’m also planting some new creative seeds to tend over the coming months.

Because who can resist the promise of new beginnings? Happy spring, everybody.