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Let's Panic: The Book!

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How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant
who Will Ruin Your Body, Destroy Your Life, Liquefy Your Brain,
and Finally Turn You
into a Worthwhile
Human Being.

Written by Alice Bradley and Eden Kennedy

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Sleep Is
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Chicago Review Press

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At LET'S PANIC ABOUT BABIES, Eden Kennedy and I share our hard-won wisdom and tell you exactly what to think and feel and do, whether you're about to have a baby or already did and don't know what to do with it. → 

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Getting over perfection 

Henry really, really doesn't like to make mistakes. His teachers tell us how carefully he writes, pausing to put a finger between each word to make sure they're evenly spaced. His handwriting is impeccable and his spelling is flawless. He's not finishing any assignments, however, because he's too busy erasing every stray errant line.

I have no idea where he gets that from. (From where he gets that.) No idea.

I've been trying to model anti-perfectionism to him, but it's difficult. I'm not good at being comfortable with mistakes, and I hate doing anything I'm not good at. You see how much of a challenge this presents.

One of the activities Henry always wants to share with me is drawing. I like to draw. I'm a decent artist. With one important catch: I have to be looking at the thing I'm drawing. I mean, I have to. If I can see it, I do okay. Here I am in Paris, sketching a statue. Kind of poorly, in this case, because Scott was taking pictures over my shoulder and I froze.

Nope, I'm just sketching in peace. Can't tell a thing.

If, however, you ask me to draw something from memory, like a dog? Or Scott? Or a ham sandwich? Well, here you go:

All right, not really. But close!

I apparently have no visual memory, because I can't even conjure up an image of one of those things. I get bits and pieces, but they won't come together. I'm pretty sure I've been hit on the head one too many times.

So when Henry and I draw together, I look around and draw whatever I see. This annoys Henry to no end. He wants me to draw something he can incorporate into a story, and how, pray tell, is an eight-year-old boy going to write a comic book using a lovely sketch of a vase and bowl of oranges? No, I have to draw a rabid cougar, or a Civil War soldier riding a farting unicorn. Obviously.

And that's when I hyperventilate. Even if no one else will see the drawing, I resist. I immediately start in. I tell him I can't. I tell him I don't know how. I tell him not to listen to anything I say and to be brave and fearless and not worry about mistakes, and then I shout "look over there!" and when he turns his head I leap out the window.

Henry's teachers told me that they gave him a pen for his writing assignments, so that he couldn't do any more erasing. "I told him something I've never told any of my other students, ever," one of his teachers said. "I told him to be sloppy."

So yesterday I bought a sketch pad, and I got out my Flair pen, and I intend to fill every page of that pad with terrible, terrible drawings. With whatever scrawls I can manage of a dog or a boat, or whatever. I'll even show them to Henry. Hell, maybe I'll even show some of them to you. Because if I want to convince Henry that making mistakes--even being terrible at something--doesn't matter as much as doing it, I'm going to have to follow my own example.

I'm surprised at how much this scares me, which almost certainly indicates that I should do it.

Reader Comments (57)

I actually refused to do an art assignment in 7th grade (draw your house from memory) because I also have no visual memory and couldn't bear to turn in an awful drawing of my house. I think the teacher knew what was going on and gave me an A anyway. Thanks, Mrs. Enabler!

Good luck with breaking the cycle!

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErin

I remember being obsessive over my handwriting when I was a kid. It would take me like an hour to write a sentence. Eventually, I just grew out of it. Maybe the same thing will happen to Henry.

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara

Have you read The Dot and Ish? Love those books and they get right at what you're talking about.

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn

Oh, one of the untold joys (horrors) of parenting -- you're forced to confront things about yourself that you'd rather not admit to. I can't wait.

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFreeRange Pamela

Long-time lurker, rare commenter here. My husband used to be unable to write a thank-you note without reading his first draft aloud for me to critique. After writing a 500-page dissertation, he can dash off quick notes with aplomb,. Perhaps even with two plombs if he's had a mojito. Regardless, what i mean to say is working on your crappy-drawing skills will certainly help you break down some inhibitions.

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterwealhtheow

Oh man, that is me. I have a very difficult time starting creative projects, writing for the first time in a notebook, drawing anything at all, etc for the fear of a not perfect outcome. I'm slowly learning to let that control go and see what happens. Slowly.

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKrysta

I can totally relate.

I was almost left behind a grade in elementary school because the teacher thought I was slow academically. It turned out, I was just meticulous.

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle

I am a famous starter. I! HAVE! AN! IDEA! I! CAN! DO! IT!

At the first sign of struggle, though, I realize I! AM! A! COMPLETE! FAILURE! and into the pile of Lost Ideas and Forgotten Projects it goes.

I never finish anything, lest I be judged based on it.

If I don't finish, I can say "Oh, yes, I tried embroidery once. But I am just too busy for that sort of thing."

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

I got irritated with my son today because he was screwing up the train track as I was trying to get it just. so. He is two. I clearly need to get over it. Your drawing is gorgeous!

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkate

Oh my... I'm seeing my future. I'm a bit of a neat freak and my 20-month-old son is already obsessing over every little drop of milk he spills, and when he finds a crumb on the floor he hands it to me or puts it into the trash, instead of scarfing it down. Aaaack!

Well, I guess if you don't know your demons, you'll never know how to correct them.

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMsJoanie

My friend (when she was a fourth grade teacher) would give the students assignments and FORCE them to throw them away. Not everything is perfect. Not everything is keepable. She also timed them to get them to write fast or draw fast and someone got a prize (sticker or something small) for being fastest. It took a while but began to get the perfectionism tendency out of a few.

And it startled the parents. "You threw away my precious angel's artwork?"

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlyce

Ooh, Alyce, I like your friend. What a great idea.

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

Yesssss. Me too. I also had the brilliant idea to get myself an Art Degree. Drawing major. Why don't you go ahead and guess how that is working out for me.

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohi

Isn't it liberating just letting everyone know you aren't perfect... we all should feel more comfortable do that!

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersanitychkforu

I am sloppy and have six sloppy children. So there you go.

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjennie w.

i totally identify with this. thank you for sharing it. hoping it will be one more step in untangling my web of faux-perfection..

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkarla porter

My 8 year old son is the complete opposite to Henry - he will scribble through his homework at 100 miles an hour, not worrying about spelling, neatness or coherence, as long as the agony is over as soon as possible. Excuses are "it doesn't matter", "the teacher doesn't worry about spelling", "it's good enough". A bit of perfectionism in this house would be welcomed!

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

Wow, that's a remarkable Louis Vuitton blank verse poem. (And I'm so ashamed that I just scrolled up to make certain of the spelling of Louis Vuitton.)

I'm only cripplingly perfectionist in about half the things I have to do in life, but I do greatly relate to avoiding things I'm bad at. This is why I don't play church volleyball, and it didn't help that last night one of my friends was talking about how ridiculously bad some of the novice players are.

My current plan is to get through life without sports, but if I have a kid who needs my example, I hope I'll change my mind.

November 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterZina

A few years ago, I came across a book that was a combination of a 'how to write' guide and a journal. The author of this book\journal talked about the fact that many would be writers had drawers full of perfect, pristine, gorgeous notebooks - all empty of course. All these notebooks were 'too good to use'. Their owners were waiting for some sublime moment of inspiration to justify their use.

The author's book was intended to be used as a daily writing journal, but with one specific proviso. Over the course of its use, the journal had to be destroyed.

The journal contained mostly blank pages, some with pre-printed coffee rings, some already crumpled, others smudged and stained with who knows what. There were stern instructions for purchasers of this journal. They were told that after acquiring the journal they were to immediately crack its spine, open it up and drop it face down in the dirt. Some pages demanded that readers\writers spill a whole cup of coffee over them, others insisted that they be torn out and thrown away.

I would love to know if anyone ever purchased this journal and if they were able to bring themselves to follow the author's instructions.

November 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLeigh

Leigh, I know that journal! It's called "Wreck This Journal" by Keri Smith. My mom bought one, wrecked it, and made fantastic art along the way--burning it, soaking it in coffee, mailing it to herself. (There's one for kids too, called "Tear Up This Book.") Recommend!

And Alice, YES. I relate. Blank page--fear of screwing up makes it so hard to get started so I rarely write anymore. I should remember Anne Lamott's instruction to write shitty first drafts. :-)

November 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKirsten

Apologies for hijacking the comments, but if anyone is interested, I just found a link to the journal that is meant to be destroyed -

November 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLeigh

I have a cousin who was very much like Henry when he was younger. It started when he was six or seven and persisted until he was in high school. The worst of it was in middle school, when he would spend so long on some homework assignments that wouldn't complete others, and his mother went and had this blow-out meeting with all his teachers about how they assigned too much for him to handle. The teachers were shocked and didn't understand because no single assignment should've taken the FOUR HOURS he was spending on each. My aunt had to sit him down and try to talk him out of spending so much time erasing letters that weren't perfect, and she "couldn't figure out where he got it from."

Despite the fact that she is the woman who includes exact product names, codes, and prices when she gives out her kids' Christmas lists. Who takes notes at family dinners as to what went well or poorly. Who would request her children's teachers for the next year in December.

Yeah, I wonder where he gets it, too.

November 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Oh how I wish you'd posted this a week ago! The Art House Co-Op (a Brooklyn-based art group) just closed reservations for their Sketchbook Project. While there's certainly pressure in creating something cool that lots of people will (hopefully) look at, I find more pressure in just filling the pages. Maybe you guys could do your own sketchbook project :) Since you live nearby, you could check out the art in February together, too!

November 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKate

I spent about two hours browsing in a bookstore yesterday (decadent, I know) and decided to pick up this book for my daughter called "Beautiful Oops".

From the publisher's site: A life lesson that all parents want their children to learn: It’s OK to make a mistake. In fact, hooray for mistakes! A mistake is an adventure in creativity, a portal of discovery. A spill doesn’t ruin a drawing—not when it becomes the shape of a goofy animal. And an accidental tear in your paper? Don’t be upset about it when you can turn it into the roaring mouth of an alligator.

November 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbad mummy

maybe a family "bad art night" is in order. let your from-imagination-only stickmen get their crazy on!

November 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterislamama

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