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The Complicated Pursuit Of Perfect

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Elizabeth Tallent is an acclaimed novelist and short story writer who teaches creative writing at Stanford, but she says for a long time, her perfectionism paralyzed her ability to write. She calls her new memoir "Scratched," and it opens with a scene at her birth. As her mother later confessed, Elizabeth Tallent was born with scratches that repulsed her mother and caused her to turn the nurses away when they offered her her newborn daughter.

ELIZABETH TALLENT: There was a medication called Twilight Sleep that caused a woman to experience all the pain of childbirth and yet not be able to remember any of it. So just as you might expect, when she awoke from the medication, she sort of had no clue how the child had gotten there. And she was in a state - a very disoriented state. Every image she had ever seen of a baby had been a child with perfect skin and these sort of adorably huge eyes. And the reality of a newborn is quite different from that.

SIMON: Yeah. And - but the advantage of some hindsight, I guess. How did that bear out in other areas of your life, do you think?

TALLENT: I think it gave me a certain mistrustfulness. I attached a great deal of importance to being as perfect as possible with the notion that if you couldn't come across as perfect, there might be pretty dire consequences. So I internalized the perfectionism and directed it at all kinds of things throughout my life.

SIMON: Well, and the theme one way or another, I think your book, your memoir keeps raising is, what is that line between high aspirations and perfectionism?

TALLENT: From my vantage point, the part of perfectionism that's devastating is - isn't the formulation of exceedingly high ideals, but it is the self-abuse that's associated with the perfectionism. So the torrent of self-recrimination - because there was a lot in my existence then and maybe in the entire sort of suburban existence that suggested you could achieve perfection.

SIMON: You are one of the most admired fiction writers in America, but you said at one point you think your writing's been hindered by your - can I call it a quest? Preoccupation for perfectionism?

TALLENT: Yeah, I think that's a fair phrase for it, a quest. And that's part of why it's so incredibly appealing - is because it's got that momentum of a quest. I think the problem with it for an artist is that it works against the kind of groping and the kind of greater openness to uncertainty that turns out to be so necessary to making something serious, something that's got reality in it.

SIMON: I mean, you write, it's - forgive me - a perfect sentence (laughter). You write, for the sake of perfection, I took a voice my own and twisted it until mischance and error and experiment were wrung from it and with it any chance of aliveness.

TALLENT: For me, that was actually kind of a late realization that aliveness is the ballgame. And I think sometimes in the way we teach creative writing we don't give aliveness enough space. We do get involved with that notion of perfect sentences, perfect phrases, perfect images.

SIMON: Have you ever been concerned that your perfectionism would make you feel - I'm going to address this very carefully - so incapable of measuring up that there was no point in going on?

TALLENT: Oh, yes is the really short answer to that because it can be exhausting because you are not in a relationship with reality. So the things that would sustain you in reality, like the oddity and beauty of other people's personalities - they have a hard time getting through to you. And you're very alone with this dictatorial force. I think exhaustion is a big part of it. I think there - it can be associated with a higher risk of suicide.

SIMON: I got to ask you to tell us about the advice your young son gave you.

TALLENT: I was actually driving him home from his after school program, and he just spoke up from his car seat. And he said to me, Mom, what you need is more self-trust.

SIMON: Wow.

TALLENT: And it really came out of the blue. And I hadn't known he'd been thinking about me in those terms. And it was an entrancing and mysterious moment. I still can't - I still don't feel I can explain it to you.

SIMON: How do you feel about the fact that after writing this book, there are people who read it who say, oh, never occurred to me before but this must be what I have going on?

TALLENT: Oh, that would mean a lot to me to think I could be speaking to someone in that way. I did have other perfectionists in mind when I was writing - would be something like, here's this experience, and this is what it's like to live with it. And this is what it's like to emerge enough from it that I could finish things, that I could finish books, that I could publish books.

SIMON: Well, you finished this, and it could mean a lot to people.

TALLENT: Thank you so much.

SIMON: Elizabeth Tallent. Her memoir, "Scratched." Thanks so much for being with us.

TALLENT: Scott, it was pure pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.