- The problem with perfectionism is that impossibly high standards can keep you from starting.
- Ideas are immaculate. The moment you set them in words, they become damaged — dented, wounded, half-dead — disappointing, less-than, wrong.
- Which often means you don’t write.
- Then you kick yourself for not writing and feel worse.
- You read someone else’s story with a similar premise. (snort) Your idea is way better! But—yours is a wispy notion. You didn’t write; they did.
- However imperfect your ideas may be, if you don’t plant them in a document, they won’t grow.
- Occasionally, despite your self-doubt, you write. This time it will be different.[i]
- If you put one idea in front of the next — 1, 2, 3 — if you sit in the same chair at the same time every day, if you’re properly caffeinated, if you write at least 700 words a day, you can produce the first draft of a novel in six months.
- With diligent practice and steady forward progress, writing will become easier.[ii]
- Rituals, routines, and order-making may [temporarily] sate your obsessive-compulsive need for control. In America, perfection is possible through merciless sweat equity: classes, workshops, critique groups, and 10,000 hours of labor.[iii]
- At first, excellence and perfection mean the same thing.
- It takes 10,000-plus hours to learn they don’t.[iv]
- Dandelions are born artists. They don’t follow rules or care about perfection. They’re survivors. They grow where they will with the slimmest encouragement of soil, sun, and rain.
- Dandelions (and artists) are indicators of conditions ripe for change. Where others see blight, they see opportunity. They are ruderals[v], growing where the earth is disturbed.
- People with lawns tend to despise dandelions above other weeds.
- Weed (n): “plant not valued for use or beauty,” Old English weod, uueod “grass, herb, weed,” from Proto-Germanic weud- (source of Old Saxon wiod, East Frisian wiud), of unknown origin.[vi]
- There is no official scientific classification or taxonomy of plants that are weeds versus not-weeds. In horticulture, a weed is any plant growing where you don’t want it.
- Which is to say a weed is a mental construct: an idea.
- Which is to say weeds reside in the mind of the beholder.
12. Like perfection or success, weeds are ideals, not units of measure. [See: every artist whose work was appreciated after they were dead.
- Sometimes, you picture an editor reading your brilliant idea made flesh. You envision the email in your inbox with a bold subject line — Acceptance — before the story is written. This is the worst way to start.[vii]
- Jane Smiley says if you love the process of writing you will be happy; if your joy is driven by the results and accolades, you won’t.
13. Which is to say artists are opportunistic entrepreneurs searching for nooks and crannies to shelter their idea-seeds, knowing the right conditions will spur internal rupture: the hull cracks, the organism unfurls its filaments, the idea takes root —
14. which is to say ideas are weeds. Neither asks permission.
A. Where gardeners seek control[viii], gardens are metaphors for paradise (see: perfection). Yet, what could be more perfect in design than a stalwart plant capable of self-propagation in hostile conditions?
B. Gardeners trim, prune, shape, edge, harvest, till, and relocate plants to meet a cohesive vision: a mental construct. In this way, gardeners are editors
15. and artists are weeds.
- Artists fashion scavenged materials into grand architectures. A writer finds a grocery list fallen from a stranger’s pocket in a parking lot; from it, she conceives the plot of a novel.
16. It’s often constraint rather than total freedom (or control) that fuels creativity. Constraint offers something to push against. It disrupts our ability to dictate. It turns one’s gaze to new views by saying where we can’t look, build, or garden.
- Constraint can be a thrilling peril for control freaks, a host-medium for wild seeds. It introduces us to plants we didn’t know we could grow.
17. One’s relationship with control may begin early in life.[ix] Family dynamics set normative expectations for behavior.
i. When I was seventeen I did what people told me / Did what my father said / And let my mother mold me / But that was a long ago.[x]
ii. American singer, songwriter, actress, and dancer Janet Damita Jo Jackson was born on May 16, 1966—the tenth and youngest child of Joe and Katherine Jackson.
iii. I was thirteen in 1986 when Jackson released Control, a literal and symbolic break with her controlling show business family. Jackson: I just wanted to get out of the house, get out from under my father, which was one of the most difficult things that I had to do.
iv. Control was about what I wanted to do. Control meant not only taking care of myself but living in a much less protected world. Doing that meant growing a tough skin.[xi]
v. Promotional images of Miss Jackson (if you’re nasty) — dressed in head-to-toe black with broad shoulder pads and boots — stirred my teenage excitement. She was a strong, powerful warrior who didn’t pander to the male libido with bare flesh.
vi. Jackson: I don’t find myself sexy. I think it’s a really nice compliment, but I don’t find myself sexy. I consider it sassy.
vii. Despite her artistic prowess, Jackson’s work is haunted by a sexualized portrayal of femininity in which she and her music are described as sexy, erotic, sultry, sensual. Her intentions aside, Jackson can’t control the public’s perception (read: desire) or symbolism of her female body and its implied sensuality, encoded as arousing by simply existing as female.
viii. Control’s top five singles, ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately’, ‘Nasty’, ‘When I Think of You’, ‘Control’, and ‘Let’s Wait Awhile’ present a sonic range of tenderness and vulnerability interwoven with self-determination and unapologetic chutzpah.
ix. The album won four American Music Awards, six Billboard Awards, three Grammy nominations, and Album of the Year. A wide swath of fans, critics, artists, deejays, and veejays lauded the excellence of Jackson’s craft, vision, and talent.
x. Yet, in the Jackson family, Janet was a weed, troublesome due to her gender and desire for self-direction and distinct self-identity.
- The art world loves making names. In Biblical terms, naming equals mastery and control.
- The gatekeepers of the art world prefer salable legacies: unspoiled lawns from which they pluck rare blooms and set the price. They seek marketability and fear true disruption. Art that can’t be controlled, packaged, labeled, and distributed [by them] wrests power and money from their gnarled, arthritic hands.
- Anonymous collectives such as Guerrilla Girls[xii] and Pussy Riot[xiii] disrupt and undermine the idea of a mainstream narrative by revealing the understory, the subtext, the overlooked, and the downright unfair, which is to say the taproots of the commercial-industrial art ecosystem.
- Thus, one may find power and shelter in collectives, pseudonyms, or anonymity.
xi. Jackson signed her first record deal at sixteen. To date, she has sold over 100 million records.
xii. Family dynamics were a primary influence of Control. The other, sexual harassment. Jackson: The danger hit home when a couple of guys started stalking me on the street. Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down. That’s how songs like ‘Nasty’ and ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately’ were born, out of a sense of self-defense.[xiv]
18. Which is to say control can be a means of [temporarily] stabilizing one’s environment, of stopping the forward progress of an undesired plot.
- But you can’t diagram, plan, or force creativity. You can only show up repeatedly without attachment to an outcome and see what happens.
- Seriously, how does one explain bursts of genius, let alone recreate or control them?
- You can perform rituals, light candles, and pray, but ultimately you must believe in magic and, when it arrives, hold on loosely.
- You can teach craft, not inspiration. You can list the ingredients of an aha! moment — everything you read, workshop lessons, overheard dialogue, the butterfly you watched emerge from its chrysalis — but you cannot definitively explain how the spark derived from the ingredients. Not exactly.
19. A well-trained body is the vessel for the mind to carry out its subconscious work.
20. Which is to say, the more proficient you become at wielding the tools of art-making[xv], the more frequently inspiration does indeed arrive . . . and the more creativity becomes a mystery.
- Art is a stretchy bag where conflicting ideas clash—and yield complexity in the contrast.
- Art is never perfect, done, or controlled, only abandoned.
- Curious~strange~bewildering . . . ideas (like weeds) emerge from the cracks in their own time[xvi].
21. For some, control in pursuit of perfection serves two masters: one being praise and acceptance, the other invisibility. (The safest place to be is in compliance with the rules.) Perfection is difficult to assail, yet it may not yield creativity.
C. The easy target is the defiant weed in a dirt field, begging to be pulled.
22. Perfectionism is a brittle shield. Female artists whose shells crack — sexually, mentally, physically, politically — are savagely punished by architectures of the state (see: Britney Spears, Pussy Riot, Janet Jackson, see, see, see…).
23. Female artists can’t release cinematic ponderings on our genitalia without recourse. We can’t shave our heads or expose nipples without the world ending — and yet, the walls and gates can’t keep us in or hold us down. Constraint focuses our power. We are legion.
xiii. See: the Wardrobe Malfunction heard ‘round the world[xvii] at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.
xiv. Jackson performed alongside Justin Timberlake who sang, “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song.” He tore open her costume, exposing her right breast and — importantly — her nipple. Timberlake was meant to pull away a bustier to reveal an intact red lace bra. Though he performed the act of stripping, it was Jackson’s breast that “broke” the controlled performance on live television.
xv. Jackson was the weed, begging to be pulled.
xvi. Her facade of perfection [erected by others] eroded. She was no longer considered controllable by the entertainment industry. While CBS permitted Timberlake to appear at the Grammy Awards, they banned Jackson’s attendance. At the behest of CBS’s CEO Les Moonves[xviii], Jackson’s album Damito Jo was blacklisted.
xvii. This, despite Jackson’s undeniable artistry, dedication, and talent.
24. Jackson’s lifelong fight for control is multivalent and (I believe) mislabeled. Rather than control, I think she’s fighting for autonomy[xix] — for voice, for the right to name herself.
xviii. Four records bear her name: Janet Jackson, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, janet., Damita Jo. Others describe a journey of artistic practice: Dream Street, Control, Discipline, Unbreakable.
xix. Jackson: It was difficult at times being a woman and being told, No, you can’t. Why? Because women don’t do that.
25. Perfectionism is an anti-weed; a fear of the aberrant.
26. I’ve tried (and failed) to be perfect in body, mind, and art. I’ve also felt afraid of being punished for being aberrant in body, mind, and art.
- I am a weed with an unforgiving inner gardener[xx] bent on perfection.
27. My true failures result when my goal is to make something “good” by someone else’s standards rather than something real by my own.
- Perfection doesn’t yield answers. It’s a dead zone, the end of searching; a stasis; sterility.
28. The problem with perfectionism is that impossibly high standards can keep you from finishing.
D. Some gardeners believe in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s grammar of animacy, a commingled relationship of human mobility and plant flourishing: each does what they do best, which is not everything.
E. Observant gardeners relocate struggling plants to sunnier or shadier spots. Thus, gardeners are editors, recomposing landscapes to strengthen relationships between character, plot, and setting.
29. Garden gates swing both out and in, but not everything enters or leaves through a gate.
- Gates, walls, fences, and borders hardly keep dandelion seeds at bay.
xx. Despite every hurdle, gate, and wall Jackson didn’t quit making art.
- Art-making is about porosity: exploring the keep-off grass, scaling fences, finding a way over (or through) walls. It’s about planting ideas in soil no one else considers fertile.
- Trial, experimentation, and failure show us what doesn’t work; through them, we discover what does.
- In a painter’s pentimento one sees strokes untaken: the sketched and abandoned gestures necessary to cohere the overlying masterwork.
- You can’t see deleted words in a novel, yet they uphold its integrity. Each draft supports the finished work by haunting it.
- The trick is returning to the page after an attempt doesn’t pan out.
30. The trick is to create conditions for creativity to sprout — then let the artwork grow wild.
- Practice alone doesn’t make perfect but regular labor and training can make you adept at wielding your peculiar talents. (See: style.)
F. The trick is to see weeds as indicators of opportunity rather than attempt to control them by scorching the earth “clean”.
G. The trick is not to seek paradise or perfection in a garden.
- The last three years of interspecies entanglements should be proof that control is an illusion (see: global pandemic).
- It’s the ultimate irony to spend a lifetime in pursuit of control or perfection when the nature of being is wild, scrappy, and mutagenic.
H. Would you find dandelions valuable if you knew that they’re enriched with vitamins A, E, C, and K as well as iron, zinc, and calcium? That their leaves and roots have medicinal uses[xxi]? That you’re eating them when you order mesclun greens?
31. Does utility equal value[xxii]?
- We make the art we can make. Only after a work is finished can we begin to understand what earth we’ve disturbed, what space we’ve made for other artists.
xxi. Jackson: It has taken me most of my adult life to come to terms with who I am. To do that, I had to break free of the attitudes that brought me down.
- The enumerated essay is a gorgeous contraption of [seeming] control. Its forward progression—1, 2, 3 — bears rhythm, an inner logic to which the human brain exclaims Yes!
- Order is comforting. Its predictability feels like control.
- Organization isn’t the same as order.
- Order quickly becomes boring but organization can change.
- The organization of a segmented essay can loosen thoughts like dandelions loosen soil.
- Sometimes the most fruitful thing you can do with order is disrupt it.
Despite my lifelong struggle with perfection, control, and self-worth, I’m not a plotter, I’m a pantser[xxiii]. It’s scary, trusting that coherent sentences will emerge from a messy compost pile of ideas. Though capitalism urges me to impose control in the hopes of making something clever, orderly, and efficient [read: acceptable] it’s from surrender that my most creative work emerges.
The shift from student to master begins with unlearning what no longer serves, and what never did. I once felt ashamed of being a slow writer. That’s empire talking. I no longer apologize for the time I need. Art-making doesn’t happen on a schedule or in isolation. It is inherently anti-capitalist, entangled, and inconvenient.
Empire survives by convincing us we’re alone, unworthy, behind [read: late] so we can’t pause to reflect or look around. Its voracious hunger for endless growth severs networks by which we might organize and halt expansion. It wins by alienating us from each other — it’s an herbicide, stamping out connection. It hisses dare to stand out, and we will uproot you which is why it’s critical that we see each other, that we say and repeat each other’s names. An artist’s legacy includes their work and everyone their work inspires [read: ecosystem]. We keep each other alive through interrelationship, an endless field of golden coronas.
- Beyoncé: When I was younger I was in a dance group. We were straight-up Janet Jackson. We did ‘Rhythm Nation’, we did ‘Escapade’, we did it all. We would win up everything at the competitions because we learned it all from Ms. Janet.
- Britney Spears: [Janet] has this presence. You’re just so drawn to her; you can’t keep your eyes off of her.
- Rihanna: She was one of the first female pop stars I could relate to. She still has power.
- Lady Gaga: [Janet] is an unbelievable legend and such a talent; somebody that I really, really look up to.
- J.Lo: When I saw ‘Pleasure Principle’ it inspired me to get into this business. I can never forget the magnificent Janet Jackson as she is a big inspiration for all my dance and music videos.
- Christina Aguilera: Janet never stops giving you what you want. She’s an artist that will always be regarded as one of the best. The whole Super Bowl thing ruined her reputation with the media and pretentious prudes, but who cares about them? She’s still doing her thing.
- Jackson: Dreams can become a reality when we possess a vision characterized by the willingness to work hard, a desire for excellence, and a belief in our right and our responsibility to be equal members of society.
Which is to say, artmaking is a symbiotic process fed by community not control — by contamination, entanglement, adaptation, mutation, practice, experimentation, failure — each seed flown from puffballs encircling the earth: a grand global surrendering.
We are each other’s guiding stars.
- When I was 17, my father swore through gritted teeth, “I control you. I control everything you do.”
- When I was 16, my mother died. During my formative years, her model showed me how to survive — and stay in — abusive relationships.
- In watching Jackson stand up for herself through song, dance, and naming, I learned there was a way out.
- At 32, I changed my name.
Today, an elderly neighbor shuffled to the glossy black postbox beneath the green Douglas firs lining her garden. Before ambling back across her perfect lawn, she bent to swipe a dandelion. The weed bore a long, jagged taproot — a trophy kill — its three butter-yellow heads bobbing like Cerebus, slain. It’s unusual for such a monster to emerge whole from the earth, but we’ve been deluged with a cold, wet spring in the Pacific Northwest. The excessive rain has loosened the hardpan. When the woman noticed me, she made a fist and thrust the plant into the air.
“One weed a day,” she said brightly. “That’s how you maintain control.”[xxiv]
I doubted she understood the significance of its presence: that once-impenetrable ground had been broken. I couldn’t help smiling. I’ve crossed to the dandelion’s side. One weed indicates where there will be others.
And there’s nothing she can do to stop them.
[i] Translation: that what you write will be perfect.
[ii] LOL It won’t.
[iii] The 10,000-hour rule was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. Gladwell suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills.
[iv] Perfection is static; excellence is a stretchy bag. It holds mistakes, flaws, and dead ends — components of experimentation — from which we learn to improve and deepen skills, innovate, and discover new territory.
[v] New Latin ruderalis, from Latin ruder-, rudus rubble.
[vi] Source: etymonline.com.
[vii] Janet Jackson: “It is my belief that we all have the need to feel special. It is this need that can bring out the best in us, yet the worst in us.”
[viii] One seeks control to dominate, to smother. Control doesn’t tolerate questions. It is monolithic and brittle. A minute shift — a single weed — can send things spinning out of control. It upends everything, which is to say: it sparks disaster.
[ix] People who have experienced trauma commonly try to control their surroundings long after the trauma occurred. Control can be a means of recreating and replaying conditions of past trauma such that a new ending may occur.
[x] Lyrics to Janet Jackson’s Control.
[xi] Janet Jackson in an interview with Allure.
[xiv] Ritz, David (September 16, 1993). “Sexual healing”. Rolling Stone. No. 665.
[xv] Here’s the 10,000-hour rule again…
[xvi] It seems like magic, but really, it’s an accumulation of practice, time, experience, and input.
[xviii] Following numerous allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and abuse, Les Moonves resigned from CBS in 2018.
[xix] Lyrics to Control: “I’ve got my own mind / Wanna make my own decisions / When it has to do with my life / I wanna be the one in control (Don’t make me lose it).”
[xx] My father’s voice.
[xxi] Dandelion tonic serves as a mild diuretic to improve digestive system functioning.
[xxii] Dandelion leaves exude a white milky latex when broken. A Russian dandelion cultivar produces latex that exhibits the same quality as natural rubber from rubber trees and has been used to make commercially viable rubber tires.
[xxiii] A term commonly applied to fiction writers, especially novelists, who write their stories “by the seat of their pants.” The opposite would be a plotter, or someone who uses outlines to help plot out their novels. (Source: Writer’s Digest)
[xxiv] Pentimento: this was originally the opening paragraph of the essay, which began as narrative prose.•