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Stymied By Perfectionism, 'Scratched' Author Struggles To Break Free

Writer's block can be temporary — or it can be massive and long lasting. After her third short story collection, Honey, came out in 1993, Elizabeth Tallent fell victim to a rockfall, avalanche, total-impasse-of-the-imagination writer's block and didn't publish another book for 22 years.

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Other segments from the episode on March 3, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 3, 2020: Interview with Roman Dial; Review of the book Scratched: A Memoir Of Perfectionism.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Elizabeth Tallent broke into the literary scene in the 1980s and went on to publish three acclaimed short story collections and a novel and then nothing until her 2015 short story collection "Mendocino Fire." In her new memoir "Scratched," Tallent explores the perfectionism that silenced her writing voice. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has this review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: There are temporary writer's blocks, and then there are writer's blocks. Elizabeth Tallent fell victim to the rockfall, avalanche, total impasse of the imagination kind of writer's block. After her third short story collection, "Honey," came out in 1993, Tallent didn't publish another book for 22 years. That's not to say she didn't try. Here's one of the many passages in Tallent's profound new memoir, called "Scratched," in which she reflects on the onset of her writer's block and her attempts to break through.

(Reading) Book by book, perfectionism hamstrung writing. You'd think this curtailment would be painful, but the crippling approached with anesthetizing softness. Perfectionism didn't stop writing. It merely diverted it into feats of repetition, of - to be more exact - replication, the same paragraph typed over and over. Sometimes, I was down to as little as a single sentence monomanically typed out word-for-word. The very perfectionism that was shutting down writing imbued the process with a thrilled momentousness. I was always closing in on the most beautiful thing I'd ever written.

"Scratched" is a memoir about the allure of perfectionism and the damage done. To the extent that it's also a book about writing, "Scratched" is sort of the anti-"Bird By Bird," Ann Lamott's classic rumination on writing and life. Lamott extols the freeing possibilities of accepting the inevitability of what she famously calls in more direct vernacular the crappy first draft. Tallent, in contrast, takes readers deep into her own internal high-pressure chambers of self-loathing and not-enoughness (ph), feelings that can goad creativity but also ultimately shut it down. Because Tallent is still immersed in her struggle with perfectionism, "Scratched" has a driven feel to it as a memoir. As Tallent confesses, I'm not very detached about perfectionism. I'm like a person whose house is on fire writing a book about fire.

Tallent's allusive narrative jumps around in time, but the primal scene here, so to speak - the moment which rouses the perfectionism that will direct her life - takes place minutes after her birth in a Washington, D.C., area hospital in the 1950s. A nurse attempts to put the infant Tallent into her groggy mother's arms, and her mother refuses. Tallent is 19 when she hears this devastating story from the only person who could tell it to her with authority - her own mother. You were all scratched, scratched all over, Tallent's mother says by way of bizarre explanation, referring to the scratches an infant in the womb can inflict with their own tiny fingernails. Her mother's lifelong aloofness mixed in with Tallent's innate sense of being damaged from the get-go is the high-octane fuel for her perfectionism. In one of the many vivid passages here where she characterizes her disorder and the first relationship at its source, Tallent calls perfectionism a love letter the psyche sends to an unresponsive other, swearing, I'll change everything if you will only come back.

"Scratched" follows Tallent through an early life that sometimes defiantly goes astray, perhaps in order to invite the self-recrimination that perfectionism revels in. At age 20, she marries her college boyfriend and sets off for grad school in archaeology at the University of New Mexico. But driving cross-country, the newlyweds reach an intersection and impetuously veer off for artsy Santa Fe. Consequently, Tallent is a no-show in the halls of academe and instead works as a bookstore clerk, plugging away after hours on her first novel.

That marriage ends, and on the verge of her second - to her analyst, no less; talk about defiantly screwing up - Tallent falls in love with a woman who runs a vintage clothing store, where she's shopping for her bridal dress. There, amidst ripped, old and soiled things, Tallent finds, if not a perfect match, certainly what seems to be more than a good enough one. If "Scratched" were fiction, Tallent would probably reject that ending as too pat, but this tentative embrace of creating something contradictory and new is finally what this oddly enthralling memoir embodies.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Scratched," the new memoir by Elizabeth Tallent.

On tomorrow's show, our guest will be writer Louise Erdrich. Much of her award-winning fiction has focused on the experience of Native Americans. She began writing her latest novel after she read letters written by her grandfather, chairman of the Turtle Mountain band of the Chippewa, the year she was born. The book is called "The Night Watchman." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLOS BARBOSA-LIMA'S "DELICADO")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLOS BARBOSA-LIMA'S "DELICADO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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