Chasing Perfection

I recently picked up knitting again. It’s a hobby I really love but often drop for months at a time. I started a sweater, something I’ve been wanting to do for years but have always been afraid of tackling. I was halfway done with the body when I tried on the sweater for the first time and was disappointed to find that there was a big swatch of color pooling from the hand-dyed variegated yarn right across the front. The spot was about four inches back from my current row – the only way to fix it would be to frog (unravel) it back to where I was happy with the color.

I sat with the idea for a couple days and texted multiple friends asking for opinions about how bad the pooling was. I was surprised to find that most did not even notice it, even when I pointed it out to them. Meanwhile, I kept wondering if it wasn’t that bad, then would look back at the picture and felt sure that I would be unhappy with the final product if I didn’t redo the work. Eventually I sat down and frogged back to right before the spot I hated.

Since I was in the middle of fixing things anyway, I decided to fix another spot that bothered me – I had woven in some ends from switching colors but had done it wrong and it twisted the stitches on the right-side of the piece. I carefully picked out the end, but then suddenly a hole grew in the fabric and I realized that I had unraveled the actual fabric itself. I tried looking up tutorials for how to fix the hole, but as I looked at the diagrams of stockinette online and then looked at the variegated yarn that I was using, I realized that I didn’t think I could fix it.

I decided to frog the rest of it and start over even farther back. When I was done and it was back on the needles, I had one inch of sweater done and an entire pattern to redo. I diligently started knitting again.

Last night I finished about three inches of the body and got to the point where I wanted to try it on again. I’d been watching the colors and switching balls accordingly and so far the dark pooling hadn’t shown up again. I was excited.

Then I put on the sweater.
And I saw it.

This time the front of the sweater had a handful of bright stripes bookended by dark stripes – it looked a little like a zebra. Crestfallen, I took the sweater off and looked over the stitches. Close up, my knitting looked great: even tension, conistent stitch size, and beautiful yarn. But as I looked at the sweater as one single garment, suddenly the beautiful variegation looked messy and imperfect. Ugly. All together, the sweater kind of looked ugly.

I don’t know why I was surprised. That’s the thing with hand-dyed yarn; it’s unpredictable and no two skeins are the same. This sweater calls for six skeins. Even choosing the skeins by hand doesn’t ensure that the colors will match completely. In fact, I’ve found almost every color of the rainbow in each of the skeins – while the majority is red and orange, I have stitches that are purple, blue, green, and black. The beauty of the color is what drew me to the colorway in the first place. I had even looked up pictures of other projects people had done with this particular color so that I could see how it knits up. Logically I knew that the final product would not look exactly the way I imagined it would. It’s not something I bought in a store. It’s something that I made.

Lately I haven’t been writing much. At all. I have a new story in my head but right now that’s where it lives and I’m too afraid to put the words down on paper for fear that they won’t be as perfect on the page as they are in my head. But in my head no one else reads them. They can never be improved, hell, they can hardly even be remembered.

Why is it that I can start, work on, then unravel a knitting project with scarcely any hesitation, but I’m afraid to even cast on my current story idea? It’s like I’m stuck in that pre-project stage, where I’m looking at patterns and construction techniques and looking up other people’s projects and gushing over what they create while being too afraid to start my own project.

I’ll be honest, I don’t feel like I’ve had a breakthrough. I’m still just as afraid of starting to write my story as I was before. But I’m going to sit with the thought that this sweater is going to turn into whatever the yarn turns it into, and my contribution is to see it through to the end…and maybe switch balls in a way that I encourage the colors to turn out beautiful in the end.

The Reality of Resolutions

Do you ever get caught up in that excitement at the beginning of the new year that this is going to be THE YEAR that you do all the things that you’ve been wanting to do? You’ll finally get out there and do all the changes that you’d like to make to yourself. You make resolutions and share them with friends and really commit and feel that same sense of excitement and energy that we often get when it’s very late at night and we decide that starting tomorrow we’ll wake up really early and do everything on our to-do list in one single day.

Then January 2nd or 3rd comes along and you start to fade a little. Maybe you promised yourself that you would do 20 pushups a day as well as eat a good healthy breakfast but now your arms ache a bit and there’s nothing good in the fridge. So perhaps you skip a day and then when it comes to following your resolution the following day, you kind of go, “….eh, I can still do this even if I don’t do it everyday.” Then by January 20th you’re looking back at your list of resolutions going “Why did I think I could do all this?”

There are literally thousands of places to go on the internet or in a library to find people talking about what it takes to build a habit and what it means to skip a day and how hard it really is to change. There’s no end to the resources you can find that can walk you through step by step how to actually implement these kind of changes and follow through on your resolutions. But the hardest part for me is always the realization that a single change is:

  • Hard
  • Won’t change everything

I have a tendency to tell myself that when I establish a good habit that so many other aspects of my life will fall together, because suddenly I will be the kind of person who can maintain good habits and don’t good habits beget good habits and then I”ll be the person I wish I could be. Maybe I’ll plan to get up early every day and write before work or start eating lunch at my desk so that I can get writing done, and the idea sounds splendid to me the night before. Then the alarm goes off and I hit snooze and roll over and end up being late to work. Then I forget to bring a lunch to work or I don’t want my lunch and I default to going out and eating alone in my car. These are the routines that I’m used to, the things that I’m trying to change for the better. And I assume that if I can change these things that the habits would incite something in me to be better than I currently am, because who I am is lumpy and lazy and resistant to the change necessary to become the person I want to be. Because change is hard, especially when you have to do it yourself, day by day, even when it’s tough.

I’m always incredibly disappointed to see the real me staring back when these changes I intend to make don’t end up coming easily. I resolve to floss daily and then skip a day and then suddenly I haven’t done it for a week and by then I know the plaque has built up so then what’s the use of starting again when I know my gums will bleed….it’s an apt analogy, fearing falling off the wagon just to drag yourself along for too far and then suddenly it feels impossible to get back on without having to go through that painful acclimating process again. I’ve always felt it would be easier to maintain a tough change by doing it every damn day, but doing anything every single day can feel like too much. I have an Apple Watch and try to fill out most of my rings, but being sick in bed one entire day can break my streak. I don’t know what it is about streaks that makes it so easy to feel like breaking the streak at all seems to imply that the change is insurmountable and it’s easiest not to even try.

I do suspect that some of my stress with resolutions and change stems from being a perfectionist about certain things. I don’t want to stumble, I don’t want to fail. Even though failing is the first step at getting good at something, even if that something is establishing a habit, it still feels unacceptable. Failing feels like confirmation that I’m doomed to be the bumbling person that I feel I am rather than the glorious phoenix rising from the ashes of a chaotic life like I want to be.

I’ve started keeping a bullet journal. Let me rephrase that. I’ve been keeping a bullet journal since 2017, but I’ve been really terrible at keeping it consistently updated. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m sure leaving it in my purse overnight and forgetting to take it to work when I don’t doesn’t help at all. So I started a new one, different than the old ones, and I’m trying to stress less about whether I remember to write in it every single day. I’m trying to kick myself out of the rut I was in. I have no idea if it’ll work, but I’d rather be the kind of person who tries to keep a journal than the kind of person who gives up on keeping one because it feels too hard to do it “the right way.”

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure that I’m truly a perfectionist. I’ve been halfassing a lot lately, and I can’t bring myself to feel terrible about it at all. In fact, I can tell myself that it’s an exercise in accepting flaws by publishing this post without rereading it, but I’ll be honest here – I just want to be lazy. So am I a perfectionist, or am I lazy? I know some of these posts read more like a journal than a decent productive blog post about a specific topic, but I do feel that some of the thing I’ve been thinking may resonate with others. I want to talk openly about how hard it can feel to change, how much failure hurts, and how often we feel that getting one thing “right” in our life will allow everything else to fall in place. In the end, life is hard, and I’m tired of feeling that I’m alone in the ways I approach it.

My juggling act

I started this blog without a set schedule for myself, since I knew that it was likely that I would fail to meet any self-imposed deadline. In the last week I have written several posts and come up with numerous ideas of what I’d like to write about. However, the posts written haven’t met my own standards, so I’ve set them aside to marinate. Writing has been tough and I’m struggling with it.

My life the last month has been hectic. I work full-time and have a second “job” remodeling a house. It takes up between 5 and 30 hours of my time in any given week, and lately it’s been on the higher side as my fiancé and I do our final push to put the house on the market. I hate flipping houses. It’s exhausting, frustrating, and never-ending. This is the last house. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.

This time last year we were living with my parents, who are kind and busy, but it was hard nonetheless. We were working on this same flip, though back then we had been working in the heat to rip out walls and bathrooms and it was awful. I turned 30 that summer and we didn’t celebrate. I didn’t feel much like celebrating anyway.

There’s always something in life that feels stressful and absorbing enough that other things in life take a backseat. Think of all the things that you feel you should prioritize over your passion or your enjoyment. If you’re a writer, you probably feel this deeply. Reading and writing wait patiently in the wings while we hustle and bustle and complain about how busy we are. Rooms are cleaned, meals are made, jobs are worked, taxes are done, children are cared for, memories are made, and it all repeats over again day by day. In the quiet moments when we pull out our phones or sit in silence recuperating, reading and writing sit patiently in the wings, and we say to them, “just wait until [something] is over. Then I’ll have time again.”

[Something ] is never over. There will always be [something ] taking up our time, wrecking our schedules and routines, disrupting our focus and capturing our attention. Prioritize reading and writing, our fellow writers tell us, because otherwise you’ll never have time for them. They’re right. But it’s a painful kind of right. The truth is that life is complicated and messy and our priorities may shift hour to hour, minute to minute. It’s a constant balancing act to survive. Our ancestors developed the skills to do this well long ago, but it wasn’t easy then either, and our modern world has only gotten even more complex. There’s no universal answer to the question “How do I achieve balance?”

Balance is truly a balancing act, something that will need to be constantly tuned and adjusted in order to keep all the balls in the air at once, knowing that if you slip up, one or more of them could fall. I can imagine this for myself. I’m keeping the following balls in the air: my desk job, my relationship with my fiance, my bills, my physical health, my mental health, my relationships with friends and family, and the remodel. Neglecting my health will ultimately harm me. Going to work at my desk job and at the remodel will pay my bills, keep a roof over my head, and feed me. If I neglect these things, then both my health and relationships will suffer. This feels like the bare minimum for me – these are the balls that I need to keep in the air in order to ensure that my life comfortable.

I’m honestly doing pretty good, especially from the outside looking in. I know many people who drop one or more of these balls when striving for their goals. Oftentimes it is health and relationships that are the first to go, which is both sad and scary. I have struggled with both, but I’m aware of my shortcomings and have been doing what I can to maintain my health and relationships as best I can. I try to keep in mind that each of these items, these balls, represent a path in life. The importance of watching my health now can’t be understated and caring for my relationships will keep me social and happy. Focusing on my job will positively impact my career and working on the remodel now will build character (ugh) and allow me to contribute towards my retirement. I’ve got most of my bases covered.

What I am missing right now is regular writing and regular reading. I could argue that I’m far too busy this month to add either of these balls to my juggling act. Most people – writers and non-writers – have agreed with me that yes, sometimes we just get too busy and must put these things aside in order to focus on other aspects of life.

But here’s the thing:

Reading is quantity over quality, insofar as it is more important as an aspiring writer and citizen of the world to read widely rather than to read deeply. Spending my time reading very different books by very different authors will teach me much more than spending my time reading and analyzing one very long, complex book by one person.

Writing is both practice to improve my skills as well as the actual production of a story that I might be able to improve and publish. If I do not spend my time writing, then I have produced nothing that I can rewrite, edit, submit, or publish. There is no substitute for taking the time to write – it will not jump, fully formed, from my brain precisely when I need it.

If I determine that I do not have time to add reading and writing to my list of obligations that I juggle, then I have deprived myself of the wonderful results of reading and writing. The same would be true of any other skill that I decide I do not have time to exercise. How often have we looked back at our lives, maybe the last day, or the last week, or the last month, or the last year, and wondered why we did not put any time towards a skill that we would have liked to have learn. The old saying goes that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, while the second best time is now.

I’m still trying to find my balance, since I’m unhappy with the juggling act that I’ve been doing – there are too many balls sitting on the sidelines waiting patiently for me to pick them back up and add them back to my balancing act. I need to recognize how much importance I place on the value that these add to my life. I’m slowly adding reading back to my life, and now writing is trying to squeeze back in. Slowly. Slowly.

Thoughts about BOOKS

I have a confession. I haven’t read enough to truly have a favorite book or a favorite author. I have books that I love and authors that I admire, but few that I can really say “[Blank] is hands down the best ever.” I want to change that and I want to be someone who knows more than “didn’t they write [blank]” when someone mentions an author.

I have a MASSIVE library of books in my house. Used bookstores are absolutely my kryptonite. My fiance isn’t much of a reader and it kind of drives him nuts that I have so many, let alone so many that I haven’t read. They’ve been boxed up since 2015 and we don’t have close to enough bookcases to handle them all. Hell, I have two full shelves dedicated to the Redwall and Animorphs series.

The most reading I’ve been doing lately is honestly thanks to the Libby app on my phone. It uses your library card to borrow ebooks from the library’s collection and while you might not be able to find everything you’re looking for, there’s a decent variety.

When I was on a two week long work trip last month I downloaded the app and a whole bunch of books that I never ended up reading.
Here’s what I wound up getting through:

  • The Giver by Lois Lowry (YA – a reread)
  • There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom by Louis Sachar (MG – wow that title didn’t age well)
  • Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (nonfiction)
  • The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (nonfiction)

Here’s what I started but didn’t finish:

  • Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris (nonfiction?)
  • Dress your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (essays)
  • The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (nonfiction)
  • Unpublished beta read from a friend

I’ve read David Sedaris before but I kept sitting next to kids on the plane so I wouldn’t be able to read the stories on my iPad without it being, well, in appropriate. I started The Happiness Project and didn’t finish it until yesterday. The unpublished book I started to devour while and realized halfway through that I was reading too fast, which is a common problem I have. I set it aside with the intention of revisiting it from the beginning.

Reading too fast has been a problem I’ve had FOREVER, probably stemming from how much I enjoy reading and how quickly I want to consume something that I love…but the curse is that I tend to get turned around in a story with a certain amount of detail or complexity. Sci fi and fantasy are the hardest. It’s easy not to get turned around with a realistic human plot, where I can make assumptions and input my own knowledge to fill holes that my fast reading may have caused. It’s quite another to gloss over something important about the alien or fantasy world and then suddenly realize that you don’t understand why the characters are suddenly flying (for example). I started A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I got about 46 pages in when I had to just put it down because I was getting myself too confused. I’ll have to go back and read more slowly, but it’s a process and I’m a slow learner. Hell, I even read stories for critique more than once because I can’t seem to get a handle on “read sloooooowly”.

The book that I’m reading right now is My (Not So) Perfect Life by Sophia Kinsella and after a day of reading I’m already 90% of the way through because it’s relatively predictable without being boring, the prose is accessible, and the story is efficient. I can’t help reading it far too quickly just because I can’t wait to see what happens next. It’s a modern romance, and it’s hard to feel like I’ve missed something super important with this speed reading of mine. Maybe a little nuance is gone, but I can always reread it if I want, right?

In the time it has taken me to write this post I wound up finishing the romance. I downloaded another from a friend’s recommendation.

MAN I’ve missed reading.

Book Review: Big Magic

Today I finished book one of my personal challenge to read more. The book was Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love fame). Gilbert gave a Ted Talk years ago entitled “Your Elusive Creative Genius” that I absolutely love and have listened to multiple times and shared with many people. Some loved it and some hated it. Gilbert talks about the change from viewing creativity as a “genius” to seeing creators themselves as “genius” and the danger that lies in creative people believing that to create something great is to be a tortured soul, to experience pain and to struggle through life. In Big Magic she expands on the subject of her talk, discussing inspiration in her own creative life and her own attitude towards creativity and producing art.

I picked up this book a couple months ago along with three of Brené Brown’s books in a moment of “I seriously need a self-help book or I will go insane”. The cover of Big Magic called to me and when I recognized the author, I picked it up. It took me forever to start reading it, but then it took me less than two days to finish it. This book spoke to me in a way few other books on writing ever have.

I am trying to figure out how to make this review concise. Here are my major takeaways (most paraphrased):

  • It takes courage to create, and without knowing fear, you cannot be courageous in the face of it.
  • We are all makers by design. To be a human alive is to live a creative life. You do not need permission to live a creative life.
    • Ariel: My uncle was an artist and he used to ask people at art shows if they were artists. Invariably, most would say no, no, of course not. He then would ask them if they liked to dance. Usually they would say, yes, yes, I love to, and he would proceed to tell them that dance was a form of creativity and expression and that they too were artists in their own way.
  • “You are not required to save the world with your creativity.”
  • The paradox of a creative life: “My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (if I am to live artistically), and it must also not matter at all (if I am to live sanely).”
  • “There is no dishonor in having a job. What is dishonorable is scaring away your creativity by demanding that it pay for your entire existence.”
  • “A good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never.”
    • Ariel: I know I have read this many times before, but coupled with Gilbert’s story of the time she decided an imperfect story was good enough – this speaks to me now.
  • “Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living.”
  • “Your ego is a wonderful servant but a terrible master. […] My saving grace is this, though: I know that I am not only an ego; I am also a soul. And I know that my soul doesn’t care a whit about reward or failure. […] My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder. And since creativity is my most efficient pathway to wonder, I take refuge there, and it feeds my soul, and it quiets the hungry ghost – thereby saving me from the most dangerous aspect of myself.”

I found this entire book to be wonderful, which is really hilarious since I literally just wrote in my last post that I prefer stories to self-help books. Well, this book feels like an authentic and earnest telling of what Gilbert has taken to heart the last couple decades of her career, and it is immensely helpful to see how she applies these lessons in her own creative life. There’s a bit of woo regarding the assertion that ideas exist in the universe and strike a person, who can accept the challenge and bring them to live. I’m not sure I believe in this, but I do look for things that I can treat as magic in the world and I do think that being struck by sudden inspiration feels as much like magic as anything else. Of course, Gilbert does not argue that to create one must always have magical inspiration, but if you’ve ever heard a singer or poet talk about words or a melody being ripped from thin air, this strange sensation of spontaneous inspiration is what they’re referring to. I’ve not yet felt it in my life, but I hope if inspiration does one day strike me this way, that I will be open to receiving it.

A Non-Promise

It should be very easy to ensure that this blog is written by the best possible Ariel there is, the version of myself that I would show at a writing conference, a public reading, or to my in-laws. But that version doesn’t exist, nor do I have the energy to maintain that long term, let alone in my writing. I’m not a very private person. I love reading and hearing about other people’s lives and perhaps I try to offer the same entertainment to others. After all, I’ve always learned more from peering into another person’s life, be it real or fiction, than I ever have from a self-help book written by someone who didn’t believe in the words. I will be as raw here as it is possible for me to be, while still maintaining some semblance of professionalism. After all, what’s written online once will live forever.

Welcome

It’s the middle of the year and I’ve just made the resolution to read more in the twelve months than I have in the last ten years, which really isn’t a lot to ask considering I’ve spent much of the last decade rewatching TV shows and skimming online articles. The most I read these days is an intriguing post on Reddit…which is why this app had to be purged from my phone. I can still access the site from any computer, so let’s just say this is an imperfect solution. But then it’s far better that I work on this self-control I’ve heard so much about.

My life the last several years has been both a success and a failure. I’m engaged, own my own home, and have a steady job in tech. I also haven’t finished writing a story in forever. A writer who doesn’t read and hardly writes? It’s not something that the 17-year-old me would have been proud to hear. I read Eragon by Christopher Paolini and dreamed of publishing while I would still be considered a prodigy. Except for, you know, the part that requires you to actually write and finish things in order to do something with it.

I’ve kept blogs on and off in my life, but I tend not to have a purpose. But now I have a name when I didn’t have one to share before, and it’s high time I try to communicate in longer than 280 characters at a time. (Twitter, I love you, but you’re choking me)

Connect with me here or over on twitter at @ACortizdeLeon. I love to chat with people, writers or not.