Wednesday, December 3, 2008


I have a student who is teaching me a lesson about perfectionism.

She struggles with writing, both at the conceptual and sentence levels; however, she's a bright young woman with some interesting ideas, which are good ingredients for a strong writer.

"What if I compared Hurricane Katrina and September 11th?" she asked when it was time to write a compare and contrast essay. I thought it was a good idea, but I encouraged her to focus on a few points to keep it from being too sprawling for the small-scale essay I'd required. She went off and wrote an essay that was pretty interesting, but needed some more analysis and a bit of polishing. I wrote some comments and asked her a few questions to help her get the analytical wheels turning, and gave it back. When she revised the essay, she had deleted everything she'd written previously and written an entirely new essay, this time proving that Hurricane Katrina and September 11th were similar because they were national tragedies but different because one was natural and the other was man-made. She'd taken away all the nuances in her argument about race and class and produced a poorly written essay on a silly topic. She repeated this process throughout the semester with every essay, so finally we had a meeting to talk it over.

She said she'd felt like she'd made too much of a mess of her first drafts, so she rewrote them on easier topics for the second and third. Instead of processing through her mistakes and polishing up the raw material into something powerful, she'd tear it all down and rebuild on a smaller scale. If she couldn't write a perfect essay in one attempt, she felt like she never could. It was too hard. She gave up.

I offered her an analogy. "If you're styling your hair, and there is a piece that is sticking up, do you shave your head?"


"You smooth that piece down, right?"


"That's what's happening with this essay. You've got a few little things that need to be smoothed over and finessed. You've shaved your essay's head."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry. I understand."

I understand too well. There are many times in my life when I'm afraid to attempt something because I believe I will fail. I see my husband, too, struggling with his attempts to get clean. It seems too hard, too big, and too much. If he slips, he figures he should just give up. Fuck it all.

There's something I'm learning here...I'm not sure what it is exactly, but my student has been helping me sort through some of my own struggles, and I'm grateful to her for the lesson.