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Picture Perfect a Writing Exercise

September 14, 2012

A few years ago NPR ran a series called This I Believe. Listeners were to submit 500 -word essays sharing beliefs they held to be true—anything from “I believe I talk to my grandfather’s ghost” to “I believe in democracy.” The response was overwhelming. I sent one in myself. My essay was about my daughter taking up running in high school because it was a no-fail sport. But it was really about watching runners who barely lumbered past the first check point while others flew across the finish, and coming to understand that we are all attempting to at least place in the same event—a life with meaning—lived with kindness. Cheer for everyone.
So now the holidays are upon us and I am looking at what I believe about them and where those beliefs came from. One of my older sisters and I look a great deal alike. When we were little our mother even sometimes dressed us alike, as if we’d be more appealing as twins. But the similarities are superficial. My sister is a perfect perfectionist whereas my philosophy is “close enough” “good enough” and “who will know?”
My sister has saved toys from our childhood and they are still in perfect condition. I was visiting her recently, opened a storage closet and there was her entire set of plastic horses she got for Christmas when we were 4 and 8.The shiny black stallion reared on his back legs his little chain reins still attached. The creamy palomino still had his saddle. That’s just wrong. So wrong.
I always return from visiting equally inspired to organize the spice rack and demoralized because I just don’t care enough to keep it that way past Wednesday. But I have always believed the holidays should perfect. I want all the presents to be perfectly chosen, and for the dog to forego the cloaking device that allows her to snatch and swallow all the cocktail napkins with the pretty cornucopias on them. I want this so much because in some way I think I’m teaching the kids what to create for themselves someday– I want to give the kids perfect memories of the holidays, as if I can fill them up and send them on their way into adulthood with a homing beacon for beauty and abundance. (And with maybe an instinct for expecting magic which is just another name for miracles.) Experience the magic of unexpected gifts once, and the expectation that something wonderful may happen, something beyond explanation, never leaves you.
Write about perfectionism. Start a scene with a character who insists on perfection: in a meal, a child, a lover, his own appearance, a friend’s loyalty? Or anchor a vignette in your own aspirations for perfection: who will love you more if you are flawless? What do you gain? At what price? What happens when you place yourself or your character in a conflict where imperfection rules the day? A crying child? A fly in the soup? A beloved friend has told a secret? A marriage that looks enviable but has fault lines running through it? Just a scene, just a point of entry. Go.

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