I have started to practise piano again. Slowly, and with bumbling, doughy hands that struggle to hold themselves in curved bridges, ‘like there is an invisible bubble beneath’, as my piano teacher would say. Terrible pinkies on each hand and even worse indexes, my left-hand harmony blurts like a drunk over the melody of the right.
My piano teacher was a beautiful woman with frizzy streams of strawberry blonde hair, and long, elegant fingers. She had a portrait of herself, a sombre oil painting, on the wall. We didn’t have any oil paintings in our house, never mind personalised oils, so I knew it was special: her cool, watery eyes daubed into permanent observance. This special, portrait-having woman, she said I had a gift. She gave me biscuits. She said and did lots of things that made me feel nice and made my mother prepared to pay the thirty-five dollars an hour every week. Not because she wanted the money—she wasn’t like that—but it must have been a little because of that. Like everyone, she needed to eat.
In primary school, I was praised for my brightness, and in high school, I was too. This praise seemed not to be affixed to my ability to do, but to what I could do: everything framed as potential. Possibility not yet tapped. An anxious child, as I became adolescent, I wondered: what will happen if I can’t live up to this perceived potential? Or more likely, less elegantly: maybe I am not good enough? My parents, newly middle-class after growing up rural and in commission housing, sought ways to encourage me. I went for a scholarship interview at a high school and I lied through my teeth about the books I had read, the things I was interested in, trying to play the part of the cultured and worldly young woman that the old, white principal wanted to see. I was selected, felt a deep panic. I was a fake. I would be found out.
My enjoyment of art and writing began to dull. I started to believe that if I couldn’t be perfect, then I would be a failure, a fat, ugly one. Then why bother at all? If I am not perfect, I am worthless. To avoid this thought pattern, I routinely put things off. I grew accustomed to the cycle of avoiding then cramming, staying up all night working on projects, creating the ideal conditions to outrun my perfectionist inner critic. And then I would finally submit, feeling like a criminal, relief rushing through me because I got away with it this time. And I did get away with it. Most of the time. I avoided anything I was not naturally skilled at (maths, science, French: anything with a practical real-world application which could lead to one day being employable) because this practice would not work in my areas of weakness.
I started to believe that if I couldn’t be perfect, then I would be a failure. Then why bother at all?
Although I didn’t always get away with it. When I was twelve or so, my piano teacher yelled at me for not practising enough, for wasting her time by showing up without having touched the keys in the last week. I continued taking piano lessons, despite not practising. Even worse than failing would be quitting, disappointing my teacher, my mother. I got a C+ for my Grade Five exam after a year of this conspicuous non-training. I berated myself privately. But I kept going back.
At school, I managed to pull through. While other girls had ‘progress meetings’ about their lack of progress, the teachers mainly left me to my own devices. I got a good score and entered a good course, whatever that means.
In university, I found it harder to repeat this process. Each time it became tougher to drum up the confidence to do the work at the end of the procrastination period. It would get to the day the assignment is due, and the day after, the day after.
The voices swelled. I cannot do this, I am not good enough, if I fail I am a bad person, if I fail I am worthless, I will fail, I will fail. It became more and more difficult to turn in any work at all. Slowly, then quickly, then quietly, I gave up playing piano at all.
Mary Oliver asks: ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ Through my distorted perspective, this blessing becomes a threat. Your only life. The last one. Fuck.
This year I, like so many others in lockdown, played Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It has been praised as a peaceful and enchanting sandbox game: infinitely playable, with low stakes, besides beautifying your island and unlocking gold tools. I became obsessed with improving my island, exploiting the land and the sea to get the raw ingredients so I could build fences, make paths, plant flowers, arrange a mismatched miscellany of items into a chaotic mise-en-scene so I could receive five arbitrary stars for my efforts. I spent weeks on the island, sinking hours into its over-saturated pixels, having mind-numbing, scripted conversations with animal residents. The dark shadows beneath my eyes deepened, turned grey-blue. My partner said they were proud that I had taken up a hobby that had nothing to do with achievement. I said, yeah, haha, and spent another five hours setting up my island amusement park, which, like everything in New Horizons, is completely non-functional. You can’t swim in any of the pools in the game, you can’t sit on the teacup ride. The relationship is completely extractive, and then finally aesthetic. You take everything out of the sea, out of the earth and then just wander around the island and bask in your creations.
I feel uneasy whenever I drive through the city—on some level it terrifies me, the idea of things never being finished.
I feel uneasy whenever I drive through the city and see all the roadwork, the flashing lights and orange cones, plastic road dividers, reflective vests, buildings trussed up in scaffolding like scrawny models in oversized outfits—on some level it terrifies me, the idea of things never being finished. I struggle to write anything unless I know I have queued up a publisher for it. I can’t write unless I can perceive a purpose for my writing, and I can’t edit unless I have a deadline looming, the shadow of a guillotine on my neck. I try to read and watch for pleasure, but it all leads back to the factory of my brain: What will my take be in my next essay? Or, since I hate the idea of takes, what will my non-take be? How can I use this?
In a comic popular on Twitter recently, Laura Lannes talks about the inability to separate creativity from capitalist production. She writes about how drawing of any kind has been corrupted as a hobby, as it is too related to her ephemeral, freelance vocation: ‘Any attempt to enjoy drawing is tainted by the sellable quality of the work’. Even hobbies, playing with clay, becomes a source of alienation: ‘we are so poisoned, we try to monetize our shitty mugs and homemade bread’. I feel a stab of recognition and retweet the comic. I do not amend my behaviours.
Why must we be good at things in order to enjoy them?
The idea that hobbies must be profitable stems partly from the neoliberal ideology which defines our era. The idea that economic advantage is the central tenet of humanity’s urges and the key to our advancement. If we’re not hustling, if we aren’t profiting, then our work does not have worth.
There is a popular notion that one will be able to master anything by spending ten thousand hours on it. I remember reading (or hearing, in a podcast) about a man who tried this—gave up his work, life, everything, to become a pro golfer, and by the six thousandth or so hour of golfing, his back crumpled, gave out. Finished. If he had ended up becoming a pro golfer, if he had been a success, then that would have been the central message of the story.
In her recent book Having and Being Had, about the practice of capitalism in everyday life, Eula Biss writes that we are still driven by the economic philosophies of thinkers like Adam Smith, who was a Victorian proponent of neoliberalism before it became ubiquitous in contemporary culture. She writes: ‘We still use the math of that time to subtract what is consumed at home from what is produced at work. In that crude equation, only work that earns money is productive.’
Each time I bring myself to tickle the ivories, I feel an overwhelming guilt about what else I could be doing. I have to focus, really hard, just to get myself to sit for half an hour, not looking at my phone, thinking of the ways that I am deficient compared to others.
Two poles for the genius: crazy, wild-hair-and-eyed, like Beethoven, or, hair flat, middle-parted, circular glasses, pouty little mouth like Stravinsky. Obviously, not a coincidence that most ‘geniuses’ are male and white.
Two models for the female genius: weird and cloistered like Emily Dickinson, huge and loud like Shirley Jackson. Obviously, not a coincidence that most ‘female geniuses’ are white.
There is not a model for the just-good-enough genius, the took-a-lot-of-breaks-and-looked-after-themselves-genius, the give-yourself-a-fucking-break genius.
There is not a model for the just-good-enough genius, the took-a-lot-of-breaks-and-looked-after-themselves-genius.
In her book, Biss acquires a piano, which comes with the scent of its previous home, a pleasant, middle-class smell. She writes that it was ‘once a mark of the class…of a gentleman, who by definition did no manual labour, to have a wife and daughters who were idle’. It was ugly for women to lie around literally doing nothing, so they were expected to take on forms of art, frivolities, as ‘accomplishments’; pretty little things for them to do around the house to make them look nice. For Biss, ‘the word that bothers me is accomplishment. I don’t want, I think, anything to do with it. Still, I pursue it.’ As do I.
Biss’ friend carries around a laminated pamphlet of poems he has memorised. ‘Standing on the train platform, or waiting in line at the grocery store, he takes out this list and recites a poem in his mind. If he doesn’t practice them, he loses them. I’m intrigued by his collection, so precarious, requiring constant maintenance, and worth nothing. It produces no appreciation in value, just practice’.
Perfectionism works best when you do not have an investment in the product, when you are merely refining something to make it the best version of itself. Like the mounds of silverware I used to polish at the numerous restaurants where I have worked. I did it well, because ensuring every bit of dishwasher grime was removed from the stainless steel was a decent way to waste time, but really I gave no shits one way or the other about the outcome. And what about when practice doesn’t make perfect—when the product is just you, sitting at your stupid little piano chair, a bad artist, an ugly baby you want to smack across the face until it stops trying?
Maybe I have started to practise piano again because I believe, finally, that I can do so without giving in. It has been long enough, I have worked hard enough, I have done the work, I have been in therapy for five years, it should be easier than this. I can, I may, I might, maybe, be able to put down one finger after the other, for no other reason than simple human joy. I tell myself this. I tell myself to tell myself this.
I want to invest in the relaxing craft of making bad art, of having hobbies. I want to give myself space to breathe and be, to breathe-be to be-breathe.
I want to invest in the relaxing craft of making bad art, of having hobbies. I want to give myself space to breathe and be.
In Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem, Planet of the Apes, she writes ‘I love you here at the beginning of your only life/and almost gone’. Maybe this is what my perfectionism is an attempt to steel against. That none of my little accomplishments, choices, really matter. That there is nothing in this life that can be perfect; we just go on till one day, we don’t. Like Peggy’s mother tells her in Mad Men: ‘Get a cat. They live 13 years, then you get another one, and another one after that. Then you’re done.’
I recently played the whole of a new game, Spiritfarer, in a few days. In the game, you take over from Charon, ferryman on the river Styx whom the ancient Greeks believed shepherded souls to the afterlife. Similarly to Animal Crossing, you have to manage a space, sowing and plucking fruit from an onboard orchard, fishing, making objects using ore. You need to maintain relationships with your charges, even the ones you don’t especially like (not everyone who dies is a saint) feeding and talking to them, hugging them.
Unlike in Animal Crossing, the space you are tending does not move forward in an ever-rejuvenating cycle. The friends you make along the way must all pass through to the other side; you take them there and you say your goodbyes. The game cannot go on forever. Letting go is part of the game’s architecture, there is no way to play perfectly, you just play. Then one day, you’re done.
All illustrations by the author.