In the 1980s, Elizabeth Tallent’s intricate, intense short stories about relationships appeared in the New Yorker at the pace of three or four a year. She published three acclaimed collections and a novel. Then, for two decades, silence. What happened? In “Scratched,” Tallent reveals how perfectionism sabotaged her writing and her life.
“Scratched” is a brave and complex memoir — though a sometimes heavy-going read — about a subject that deserves closer scrutiny. Perfectionism is an odd affliction, part spur, part handicap. Tallent explains: “In a boon rare among afflictions, to name yourself its sufferer is to flatter your own character as uncompromising, bound to impossibly high standards: ‘I’m such a perfectionist’ failed to sound sick.” On the contrary, “A supposedly surefire means of pleasing a job interviewer is to answer What is your biggest flaw? with I’m a perfectionist.”
But make no mistake: Perfectionism can be crippling. Tallent makes clear that its exacting standards, however lofty, can be devilishly effective at stifling the sort of risk-taking required of literary fiction. “At bottom perfectionism is petrified panic,” she writes, adding, “In perfectionism a task can be done two ways: flawlessly, or not at all.” “Not at all” often turns out to be the more alluring option, leading to “the guilt-infused sensuousness of procrastination.”
Tallent, a celebrated teacher of creative writing at Stanford University, brings an intellectual rigor to her memoir that recalls Kathryn Harrison and Dani Shapiro. She is capable of beautiful precision, as when she comments on her two decades of literary misfires: “On behalf of beauty, stiltedness and inhibition broke the back of every sentence. Aversion, the approved response to imperfection, suffused my pages.”
By design, a portrait of anguish permeates many of these pages. Tallent’s relentless drive to nail a thought or a feeling in transcendent language leads not just to memorable, enviable images (like the dark leather buttons on a corduroy jacket, as “conspicuous as dachshund noses”), but also to long, dense, numbingly winding sentences and paragraphs that capture all too well her dismay at having repeatedly fallen short of her impossibly high standards.
“Scratched” opens with this wry observation: “Notoriously, we can’t finish a thing. The truest perfectionist, the one I’m failing to be, would still be rewriting this sentence.” She caps this with a recursive conundrum: “As a perfectionist I leave a lot to be desired, and if you leave a lot to be desired, you’re unlikely to run out of desire.”
No stranger to psychoanalysis, Tallent traces her affliction all the way back to rejection by her mother at birth, which her mother tells her about when she is 19. Apparently, she had scratched herself in utero with her uncut fingernails, which her mother found alarming and repugnant, though it is not uncommon. It is the first instance of many in which Tallent (never mind her mother!) fell short of perfection and the source of her memoir’s title.
Tallent imagines the scene, writing in the third person about the scratched baby girl her mother refused to hold. She strings together several outstanding images in one sentence: “the gauze mitts lollipopping its fists, its feet lounging over the nurse’s arm like the heads of tulips whose stems kept growing in the vase, its thighs flayed with scratches.” And her mother, in cat’s-eye 1950s glasses, asking, “What is wrong with it?”
The narrative arc of “Scratched” proceeds more or less chronologically, jumping from one alarming scrape in Tallent’s life to another, often years apart: the time she got into the car of a stranger whom she mistook for her father finally picking her up on a street corner after a violin lesson; the time she decided to ford an icy river rather than walk the long way home after a night out in Santa Fe; the time, pregnant and nauseated, she insisted that a Greyhound bus driver drop her off at an abandoned roadside gas station where she rashly accepted shelter in a truck before thinking better of it. These heedless mistakes, which could have been catastrophic, fuel her self-chastisement.
It’s not all misery, but it’s all intensely felt. “Every unhappy family is periodically ransacked by joy,” Tallent writes. There’s an initially happy first marriage to a supportive husband, and early literary success. We learn about this only obliquely. (The bus trip she aborted was to Albuquerque, where she was to catch a flight to Washington for a reading at the Library of Congress.)
There’s also the satisfaction of being able to soothe her son the way she wished she’d been soothed — to the point where “at my worst I felt jealous of my son, steadily loved as he was.”
That son, Gabriel Tallent, the author of the critically acclaimed novel “My Absolute Darling” (2017), was astute enough at age 6 or 7 to tell his insecure mother, “What you need is more self-trust.”
It’s tricky to criticize a writer who is her own harshest critic, a person whose inner “police state” repeatedly tells her, “You are not that interesting.” The concern is that anything less than a rave will only feed her self-doubts and silence her again. Perfectionists are like dermatologists who can’t see the glow for a few blemishes.
Memoirs are by definition self-involved. Tallent’s story is an interesting one, though her deep dives into the hole of her neuroses and mess-ups — including her marriage to her last therapist — can leave readers needing to surface, gasping for air.
One welcome blast of oxygen comes with the alluring lexicon for damaged items, like “foxed” books and “sick” clouded glass, that she learns from the Mendocino antiques dealer who becomes her third spouse and first wife. She marvels at this “language for imperfection that refuses to cast out the imperfect.” The lesson, which also applies to this book, is that there’s beauty and value in imperfection, too.
A Memoir of Perfectionism
By Elizabeth Tallent
240 pp. $26.99