How to Avoid Going Insane As A Writer

And have sharp-looking shirts while you’re at it

Today I spent a very satisfying half-hour ironing sheets. I never dreamed I would find solace in ironing, but I have. I was raised by an ironer; my mother ironed everything, including our underwear. But from as early as I can remember, I railed against ironing and told my mother how pointless it seemed to me. I chose clothes that were meant to be drapey rather than crisp, and anything that was meant to be crisp I redefined as wrinkly. I vowed I would never spend a minute of my life bent over an ironing board pressing out a sleeve when the sleeve was just going to get wrinkled anyway. I wouldn’t waste my time on such futile things.

I spend my time instead trying to perfect the imperfectible. I spend my time trying to craft the perfect sentence, trying to choose just the right word, trying to find every last detail, trying to build the perfectly structured story or book. Often the pursuit is exhilarating. But it can also be stupendously frustrating, because, of course, there is no perfect sentence or word or story. In writing, the ultimate is never achievable. If I work hard and the words feel right I might be satisfied, but I can never feel completely content. How could I? Writing is not an absolute. At your best, you hit close to the mark, but it’s not science; it never adds up to 100, no matter how good a job you’ve done.

This isn’t to say that writing is constant torture, not at all. But the sensation of complete satisfaction isn’t part of the deal. Unless you’re arrogant or a fool, you know there’s always something more that could be done to make something you’ve written better. That’s not to say you should never let go of a story. You have to learn how to know when you’ve done as good a job as you can do plus ten percent more than that, and then you can release the writing to the world, humbled by knowing it’s not, nor will it ever be, perfect.

What I discovered, though, is that ironing can be perfect. After years of sleeping on sheets that looked like accordions and scoffing when my mother raised her eyebrows at my puckered shirts, I finally bought myself an iron, just for the hell of it. I ran the thing down the edge of a pillowcase, and had the sudden, blissful sensation of complete satisfaction. The fabric flattened and eased. I kept ironing. It was hypnotic, predictable, finite; apply iron to wrinkled fabric, press hard, achieve perfect results. There were no choices to make and there was an absolute to strive for. Is this what Zen feels like? Maybe. Writing stimulated my brain and my soul, but this was something that felt complete.

I don’t advocate that everyone run out and get a steam iron for therapeutic purposes (although think of those nice crisp sheets!). But I’ve realized that it’s important for me to have something to do regularly that is concrete and satisfying, to contrast with the abstractness, the impossibility, of writing perfectly. I feel very lucky to have a job that doesn’t include monotony, and doesn’t have a performance grid that I must match, but it sure feels good to do something every day or so that has a simple reachable goal.

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)

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