Monday, January 24, 2011

On New Resolutions, Old Habits, and Ugly Bathrooms

A dear friend of mine missed seeing her psychiatrist last week because of a blizzard. She called him and said, “Don’t even think about going in today. I want want you to get hurt.” He said “If you were as nice to yourself as you were to others, your depression would be cured.”

I believe it’s the wisest thing he has ever said and she didn’t have to even drive in snow to hear it.

This relates to my New Year’s resolution, which relates to my writing resolution. I told my husband, “I’m going to try to stop beating myself up all the time.”

I lied.

Knowing something would be good for you is not the same as changing the habit of a lifetime. Much as I try to be as gentle with myself, it’s almost a reflex at this point to be self-critical. It starts with “Why aren’t you writing faster?” and ends with every revision suggested by every editor and any complaints from readers, including the one that says, “Would you please write another book because I’m tired of waiting?”

I’m a quick study, but tend to remember the bad and forget the good, turning even left-handed compliments into complaints. Lately, I’ve been so afraid of repeating my mistakes that I freeze.

As of today, I’ve written several hundred pages on my work-in-progress. Unfortunately, they aren’t one book but several I’ve begun anew, trying to get at that ping I held in my head but couldn’t seem to find on the page. Still, I keep trying, knocking my head against the wall until I finally throw up my hands and decide to start over.

In the meantime, I’ve been stuck in the purgatory of perfectionism, otherwise known as procrastination. My latest obsession?

My master bathroom, which, I hope you will agree from the pictures above, was horrid. (As are my blogging skills since I've spent hours trying to move the before and after pictures down here but cannot seem to do. Apparently, guessing by the HELP forum, I'm not alone. Since I'm writing about accepting imperfections, I'll leave the ugliness be, and leave it to you to figure out which picture is the before and which is the after. I have no certainty when this goes live what the order will be.)

Anyway, back to last month, when I would vascillate between fantasies of renovation and pondering my newest ailment, ADHD.

Even I recognized the irony as as I recently picked up my daughter from school. “How was your writing day?” she asked, knowing how frustrated I’ve been. I explained that I’d spent the morning downloading and reading the book Delivered from Distraction.

“Which you then used to distract yourself,” she said.

True. But what I loved about the Hallowell book, which I highly recommend to all artists, is how he makes an argument that instead of seeing ADHD as a disability, we might think of it as a collection of traits that allow for great creativity and ingenuity, and just plain having fun. The point is to try to cherish those traits and allow ourselves to blossom while acknowledging there are things we can do to try to maintain focus. Structure is important, for example. So is exercise and meditation/prayer and even fish oil tablets.

Can I say in my defense that I tried them all, but the fish oil tabs brought me front-and-center to thinking about those awful brown shells in my grotty grotto of a double shower? Can I also say that I realized my redecorating up until then had always been trying to work with the colors in the room, which I didn’t care for, rather then reverting to those things I loved. I was worried about resale, about neutrality, about matching. Mostly, I was afraid I’d screw things up.

Having had trouble feeling a sense of agency about my work, I decided impulsively, since my husband was going away for a long weekend, to just throw myself into a quick redo. Did I mention impulsivity is one of the hallmarks of ADHD?

The difference between my mindset with this creative venture was my determination to proceed without worrying that I’d make a mistake. Indeed, mistakes are the only way we learn, another tidbit from my recent voyage into self-help-ville. If I screwed things up, I couldn’t really hate it any more than I already did. There was something liberating about how ugly it was to begin with.

Which leads me back for one moment to writing: Anne Lamott’s wonderful guide to writing, Bird by Bird, captures it all when she encourages the reader to just go ahead and write, however awful they think it is. The heading of that chapter: "Shitty First Drafts."

Which segues neatly back to the bathroom remodel. While I was laying the stick-on tiles and lining up Tile Tatoos over brown shells, I had a lot of free time to think. I remembered hearing that intellectual progress requires, oddly enough, relaxation. The NPR scientists explaining this paradox gave an example of a series of puzzles they asked people to solve. By chance, one of the research subjects was a monk, who tried his best but was floundering. Because he was a champ at meditation, he decided to force his brain to relax. Moral? He solved the puzzle in record time.

All of this connects to the resolution I made on January 1st to stop beating myself up. I realized that my tendancy to recall every criticism I’d heard was a form of self-flagellation. The desire for perfectionism, as the movie Black Swan so brilliantly illustrates, is closely tied to self-destructive behaviors like eating disorders, cutting, and so forth. You cannot create with your teeth clenched and your nose to the grindstone. There must be some abandonment and whim.

I have to say, I adore my new bathroom, despite its problems, which include a major mishap of epic proportions. I spilled (or my dog did) the bright blue/purple paint on my bedroom rug, an error I tried to redress with a patch that doesn’t quite match. (I have a great photo but I will not risk inserting it only to find it's taken over this post and eaten it alive. Suffice it to say, my craftsmanship is highly noticable.)

The new bathroom is lurid, I know. But I tell myself I’m in Paris and suggest to my husband that he pretend he’s in a French brothel. The colors make me happy, and send me to a place I’d love to go.

Much like fiction should, at least in my opinion. Having just finished a Man-Booker prize winner that was perfectly done and bored me to tears, I’m going to ‘play on the page’ and try not to worry about the paint I’ll spill along the way. I’m going to allow myself to be messy and mismatched and write the American version of my faux Paris brothel bathroom. It might not be somewhere you'd be proud to be caught, but no one would say it wasn't entertaining.

Sheila Curran is the author of Diana Lively is Falling Down and Everyone She Loved


  1. i LOVE LOVE LOVE your new bathroom. My entire bedroom is a deep blue--with lots of windows and white woodwork. My mother muttered something about smurfs, but my husband and I love it (or at least he likes that it makes me happy). In the bathroom, with the terra cotta tiles, I tell myself it's like being in Greece.

    Can't wait to see what you turn your book into, too!


    p.s. I can explain how to move pictures . . .

  2. Diana, I am crazy about your new bathroom too. (I worried that I'd pick the wrong one, but the choice is really quite clear.)

    And may I just complain that it's a little hard to follow you in the Girlfriends Book Club Queue--because your words seem to flow out so easily and are so much fun!

    Sigh. I'll see you all tomorrow...

  3. Sounds like you're starting off the new year well. You've inspired me in many ways but especially in the bathroom are. You should see the God-awful wallpaper I've been living with.

  4. It's nice to know there are other perfectionists (procrastinators) out there! When I'm stuck writing, which seems to be happening more as I near completion (is that normal, by the way?) I can think of a 1001 things to do around here. Cook, clean, organize, play Wii, but in the end, it's me running from the writing. And like you, I have a daughter who constantly calls me out on it! I do love your bathroom though. Which reminds me... No, must stay focused!

  5. Love this post, Sheila-- you really said it so well. Sometimes we get so obsessed with perfectionism that we can't even make a move. It's happened to me more times than I care to remember, so I try to just free write and see what happens. There's something that makes you feel great about getting lots of pages written, even if they later need TONS of revision!

  6. Thanks girlfriends for all your comments. I am a bit embarrassed at how messy the post looks but I do love my new bathroom! Karin, I sympathize about the wallpaper. So much of it is so Fugly.
    And now I will MAKE MYSELF go back to my novel.
    Judy, please do tell me how to move the pictures, either here or at my email ...the new editor/system is not an improvement..the old one worked rather well I thought. Roberta, I always Love your posts..can't wait to hear the sorts of procrastinating you might be doing with food research!

  7. Sheila, yep, with renovating, redecorating, and writing, sometimes we just have to be messy and mismatched (at least for awhile!). Having fun and enjoying life is what it's all about. And it sounds to me like you've got that down pat! Now you're inspiring me to make plans to fix up our upstairs hall bath, which could use a mini-makeover. It can only aspire to Paris brothel at this point.

  8. Bravo, Sheila, on your gorgeous bathroom (we redid ours recently too) and for your honesty... I just love the line about distracting yourself with that book! And I'm going to borrow that psychiatrist's advice. I think we women are all guilty of beating ourselves up too much! xo