'Scratched' spotlights the value of a less orderly approach, harm of perfectionism

"Scratched: A Memoir of Perfectionism" by Elizabeth Tallent
"Scratched: A Memoir of Perfectionism" by Elizabeth Tallent
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The writer Elizabeth Tallent released her first story collection in 1983. Over the following decade, she joined Stanford's prestigious creative writing faculty and published a novel and two story collections, all well-received.

Michiko Kakutani, though, reviewing Tallent's 1993 collection “Honey” for The New York Times, wrote sadly that each story was individually beautiful, but the collection relied too much on the same themes, explored in the "same combination of elliptical dialogue and minutely detailed introspection." Kakutani ended her review hoping that Tallent, given her "generous gifts," would "broaden her fictional territory with her next book." That next book, 2015's “Mendocino Fire,” is, in fact, significantly broader. It also took Tallent 22 years to write.

In “Scratched: A Memoir of Perfectionism,” Tallent explains both the repetition Kakutani identified and her two decades of writerly silence. In chaotic, tumbling, and beautiful prose, Tallent describes the "perfectionist seizure" that slowed her writing nearly to a halt. The resulting memoir is, like Tallent's fiction, highly internal. It runs on emotional mapping and mining. Unlike her fiction, though, it's messy. Tallent's sentences in “Scratched” are rife with commas, and often run half a page. She dips into her perfectionistic mother's head with an omniscient narrator's abandon. She jumps around in time without concern for reader expectation — which is not to say her timeline is hard to follow. Nothing about reading “Scratched” is hard. To the contrary: It is a pure and consuming pleasure. Its messiness feels both defiant and intentional, a middle finger raised to perfectionism.

Tallent's juxtaposition of style and structure with subject matter is her memoir's big victory. It's also refreshing to read. Mainstream literary writing, I think, has tended toward perfectionism of late. Certainly I've read far more tight, restrained, crafted-feeling new releases in the past few years than wild, baggy, runaway ones. Even Zadie Smith, whose joyously frenzied debut “White Teeth” led the critic James Wood to coin the dubious term "hysterical realism," has been publishing clean, taut stories and essays recently. There are, of course, many exceptions to this observation. Still, reading “Scratched” reminded me how exhilarating disorderly writing can be.

This is true in part because disorder goes well with amplitude. “Scratched” bounds around the United States, and through Tallent's life. Its prose ranges from very plain to very elaborate, with the beauty of the former cast into relief by the latter. Tallent describes interest — in a story, an idea, an experience — as her personal "antivenom for perfectionism," and her interest in style seems to be an antivenom here. So does her determination to capture the vicious internal voice of perfectionism, which tells her that every sentence she writes is an "error [f--kup] mistake hideous miscarriage." That voice pops up throughout the book, intruding on Tallent's work, her mothering, her relationships. It even wrecks an effort at Zen meditation, which she captures in a moving and hilarious run of thought:

"So this is what meditation is like when it's working, it's fantastic how peaceful the inside of my head can get, I'm good at this, I will be the student whose enlightenment amazes Roshi. Delusion, what an a--hole I was."

Tallent worries often on the page about being an a--hole. (She's not.) She notes frequently that perfectionism is a stable obsession or, as she puts it, addiction; she knows it "can present not as delusion, but as an advantageous form of sanity." This knowledge feeds the rigor of her self-examination. So does her long history of therapy, which she describes somewhat ruefully, highlighting "the hard work I was doing to come off as sane" or "the poor transparent seductiveness" of her tendency to stroke one shrink's velvet couch. (Worth noting: Tallent married that shrink, albeit briefly, a marriage she presents as a failure of perfectionist hopes.) Mostly, though, Tallent filters her self-scrutiny through her identities as writer and daughter. As a child, she hoped to please her mother by becoming "a creature of infinite attention." As an adult, she cultivated "the obsessiveness perfectionism encouraged [, which] dovetailed with my image of a serious writer."

If there is a lesson for other writers in “Scratched,” it is to change that image. Tallent writes passionately about the seductive vision of writer as detail-hoarding, sentence-smoothing genius. That vision, to her, is a trap. "For the sake of perfection," she writes, "I took a voice, my own, and twisted until mischance and error and experiment were wrung from it, and with them any chance of aliveness." Aliveness comes not from the perfect simile but from the personal one. A paragraph written mid-commute in an iPhone Notes app might have more "mischance and error" than one that takes a week to complete, but it's likely to have more urgency, too. “Scratched” is a performance of, and appeal for, urgency. It's a call I hope other writers will be able to heed.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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