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What Elizabeth Tallent Learned from Twenty-Two Years of Writer’s Block


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What Elizabeth Tallent Learned from Twenty-Two Years of Writer’s Block


“Perfect” is a defensive word. Other terms of praise home in on desirable attributes—this view is glorious—or describe an effect on the viewer: look at those ravishing mountains. But “perfect” ruminates on the possibility of flaws in order to deny their existence. Because it depends on the absence of error, it exalts not creation but excision, deletion, its logical endpoint a beautifully intact nothing.

A new book, “Scratched,” by Elizabeth Tallent, is the tale of a life lived in search of that nothing. In the nineteen-eighties, Tallent’s short stories appeared frequently in The New Yorker; she published four works of literary fiction with Knopf. Then, for twenty-two years, she published almost nothing at all. “Scratched,” which is subtitled “A Memoir of Perfectionism,” attempts to explain her long silence. It is a fascinating, busy document. The sentences are worked and reworked, twisted into wires and drawn through multiple clauses. Straightforward memories alternate with meditations on family dynamics and quotes from psychologists and social scientists. Tallent, who takes pass after pass at her elusive subject, evokes a fisherman in a fairy tale, repeatedly casting his rod. There is something compulsive at work here, and a pathos that rises from the simultaneous breadth and modesty of the author’s yearning. Tallent wants nothing less than perfection, because nothing less will make her safe.

Tallent does not disguise that she’s gone through extensive therapy. (She married one of her therapists before leaving him for the woman who is now her wife, an antiques dealer in Mendocino.) She understands her affliction in a way that at first reads as pat: as the response to a hypercritical, narcissistic mother, who made love contingent on achievement. “Scratched” dutifully cites Freud and Donald Winnicott but skims over most clinical research in order to dwell inside Tallent’s lived experience: “ego-wrecking fugues” at her desk; a constant “aura of emergency.” The anecdotes, their selection informed by the maternal hypothesis, are gripping. The book’s primal scene is the day Tallent was born: her mother refused to hold her daughter, Elizabeth, because the baby had scratches on her legs. (Hence the title.) This foundational rejection reverberates through the memoir. “Perfectionism,” Tallent writes, “is a form of being terrified of, and what follows that of is a blank every perfectionist would probably fill in differently, but whose large, generalizing term may be loss.”

Reading about the cruelty that Tallent endured as a child, I at times wondered whether “perfectionism” buried the lede. At one point, Tallent breaks her arm; her parents bundle her into the trunk of their car and don’t seek medical treatment. (Several days later, another family member insists on taking her to a hospital.) In a second flashback, Tallent waits by the road, in the snow, after her parents fail to pick her up from a violin lesson; when a car that she thinks is driven by her father stops, she scrambles inside, frantic with relief. But it’s not her father. Tallent’s mother pulls up to the corner to see her daughter hastily leaving a stranger’s car. She’s furious: Tallent has lost her violin. These episodes whip Tallent into an exquisite, pointless industry. A few weeks after the station-wagon fiasco, she recounts, “something woke me”: “instructions for returning to the rightness of the time before you were a recognizable self, the time when you could not be blamed.” These instructions, “sourceless” and “detailed,” tell Tallent to run up and down the stairs, in silence, while her family sleeps. The climbing hardens into a nightly ritual.

As Tallent grows older, her perfectionism—an authority she can’t place making demands she can’t understand—devises new torments. She becomes a champion procrastinator. (“In perfectionism a task can be done two ways: flawlessly, or not at all.”) She marries her college boyfriend, a gentle and easygoing roofer, and moves to New Mexico, where she drops out of her archeology graduate program and becomes a bookseller. The couple has a son, Gabriel (now a fiction writer, the author of “My Absolute Darling,” from 2017), whom Tallent struggles not to wound with unreasonable expectations. Gabriel’s quiet, observational presence helps crystallize the book’s stakes: Will the author do to her son what her mother did to her? Meanwhile, Tallent gets into erotic entanglements with poets and artists, and meditates with Zen masters. For much of this time, she writes, she is also crafting fiction, “typing along in hidden entrancement.” Then, suddenly, she stops.

The passages in “Scratched” that deal with writer’s block will have the effect of quicksand on anyone who’s struggled to express herself on paper. You sink under, horrified and enthralled. “For the sake of perfection I took a voice, my own, and twisted until mischance and error and experiment were wrung from it,” Tallent writes. “My prose broadcast the deadness instilled by infinite tiny acts of killing-off.” Tallent’s account more or less conforms to the original theory of writer’s block, which was put forward by the Viennese psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, who suggested, as Joan Acocella wrote, in 2004, that creative paralysis begins “in rage over the milk-denying pre-Oedipal mother.” (“Starved before, the writer chose to become starved again—that is, blocked,” Acocella continues.) But the memoir itself proceeds on strong sentences, sleek with a hard, dark lacquer. A woman impresses Tallent because she is “capable of failing to notice male disapproval.” The same woman favors cardigans, “just one or two buttons buttoned, never the correct button in the correct buttonhole, and worn thus the droopy beige or camel vapidity of the sweaters took on an air of witty dereliction.” Tallent’s writing can have a pleasingly labored quality, as if she were a metaphysical poet comparing sex to a flea.

Tallent, who concedes that the label “perfectionist” can be a flattering one, also refuses to obscure “how much time I lost in pursuit of the beautiful beginning of this book.” “Scratched” digs up a subtext in every creative endeavor: that art preys on artists. According to ancient laws of conservation and conversion, you don’t produce loveliness out of nothing; you produce it out of you. There is a sadomasochism, then, to the reading and writing of “Scratched,” and Tallent is never so alluring as when she’s parsing her own prison. Perfectionism, she writes, “hits a perceived error hard, its scorn aura’d with eloquence, and it moves fast, faster than conscious thought.” The instant of consenting to its judgments “is a radiant alliance with grace.” Tallent makes her condition sound irresistible, or maybe she is simply demonstrating her inability to resist it—“I’m like a person whose house is on fire writing a book about fire,” she jokes—and the point of “Scratched” is that those two things become indistinguishable: perfectionism proves so totalizing a structure that there is no getting outside of it. The memoir relies on words that, inscribed with their author’s desire to express the inexpressible, become almost tragic. Each adjective—“radiant,” “numinous”—gestures toward a splendor it can’t reach.

Histories of mental illness or fixation tend to get written from the coast of stabilization, if not the far shore of recovery. Tallent, who remains in the perfectionism business, has at least acquired enough distance to create—and publish—“Scratched.” For this, she credits her son; her ex-husband, the therapist; and her wife, who, before they are married, sells Tallent five “as is” wedding dresses. (“Tattered beauty after tattered beauty slides down my uplifted arms,” she recalls, leaning into the symbolism.) This finale suggests a mawkish yet useful fact: that the cure for perfectionism is love. What Tallent calls her condition’s “mortal loneliness” begins in “blindness to what is right before one’s eyes.” The perfectionist rejects living people, living work, in favor of an idea: “a radiant, ultra-real changeling.” The lover, by contrast, cannot imagine a reality without her actual beloved, whose scratches become precious to her. The sacrifices involved in committing to perfection—namely, the renunciation of the imperfect, which is to say, of everything that exists—are too great. Tallent’s thesis is that perfectionists are terrified of loss. Maybe they aren’t terrified enough.



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