Thursday, June 23, 2011

Guest in Progress: Sandra Beasley on Perfectionism

The fabulous and fabulously talented Sandra Beasley’s memoir will be coming out in July. Here’s the description of Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life:

"Like twelve million other Americans, Sandra Beasley suffers from food allergies. Her allergies—severe and lifelong—include dairy, egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, and mustard. Add to that mold, dust, grass and tree pollen, cigarette smoke, dogs, rabbits, horses, and wool, and it’s no wonder Sandra felt she had to live her life as “Allergy Girl.” When butter is deadly and eggs can make your throat swell shut, cupcakes and other treats of childhood are out of the question—and so Sandra’s mother used to warn guests against a toxic, frosting-tinged kiss with “Don’t kill the birthday girl!”

"It may seem that such a person is “not really designed to survive,” as one blunt nutritionist declared while visiting Sandra’s fourth-grade class. But Sandra has not only survived, she’s thrived—now an essayist, editor, and award-winning poet, she has learned to navigate a world in which danger can lurk in an unassuming corn chip. Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is her story."

Having loved Sandra’s gorgeous poetry in her second book, I Was the Jukebox, I’m very much looking forward to reading her memoir, which I’m predicting will be a Big Book. How does someone get two books of poetry and a memoir written (and published) in less than ten years? Perhaps a clue (and a warning) can be found in the following blog post—which originally appeared on Sandra’s—yes, I must say it!—fabulous!! blog, Chicks Dig Poetry, on May 9, 2009. (Links to books, blogs, and more below.)

Strangely Perfect, Perfectly Strange
by Sandra Beasley

At 3:47 A.M. last night, if you'd been looking for me, I could be found puttering around my apartment. I had things to do: watching an episode of The West Wing. Plucking yellow leaves off a peace lily. Pouring a dollop of Bluecoat gin, pulled from the freezer, into an already full martini ("martini" = redeeming olive).

So help me God, I am a perfectionist. If you've escaped that fate, it may not be obvious how all of these pursuits (each obviously inferior to, um, sleep) are spokes on the perfectionist wheel. I'll explain.

Some time ago I discovered that if you happen to be up at 3 A.M. on a given weeknight, you can probably find a re-run of The West Wing on Bravo. Ever since then, once it's 2:56 I become a lost cause. Even if my eyes are already half-shut, I will pry them open to stay up and tune in. My love for the show can be traced directly to Aaron Sorkin's dialogue. Every damn character is meticulous--whether it be in their politics, their ethics, their addiction to witty banter, or their martyrdom. Every sentence is polished to a golden glow; if you are right you will be perfectly right, if you are wrong you will be perfectly wrong, and if you are vague it will be a mists of vaguedom so thick and diffractively glorious as to spawn rainbows.

Realistic? No. But West Wing dialogue is crack to a perfectionist.

Exhibit B: To a perfectionist's eye, a room-temperature martini is a fatally flawed martini. So even though I'd stopped actually drinking a good hour before, I freshened it up with cold gin from the freezer, so that the glass once more assumed its glaze of frost. That was the last time I touched it until I dumped it in the sink before bed.

Besides being wasteful with reasonably expensive liquor, perfectionists adopt sadistic attitudes toward innocent plants. Take the peace lily, which was completely wilted to the floor upon my return from a holiday-weekend road trip. The moment I'd noticed it, I got out a trash bag and picked it up to pitch it. Give it a cup of water, pled my boyfriend. It could come back. I looked at him suspiciously. Clearly this plant was broken. Not only that, it's presence in the living room was raising the big red flag of bad housewifery--I hadn't even thought about watering it before leaving town. I couldn't take the reminder of my failure. Give it a day, he said.

Come around 3:20 A.M. (as Josh is worrying over Stackhouse's third-party candidacy), I hear a rustling sound. I look over, and--lo and behold, the peace lily is visibly perking up.

Do I sit back, bless my boyfriend's patience, and enjoy the Lazarus show? Nope. I become fixated on the dozen or so irreversibly yellow leaves. I stalk over, hunker down, and start stripping them off with my bare hands. It's not easy. They're wilty, but still kin-flesh to the plant. I'm become some barbarian, dragging maidens off by their long, soft hair even as they try to cling to their families.

Once I'm done, what remains is a plant free of any but the most perfect, glossy green leaves. And, probably, severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

As a writer, perfectionism offers a lot of benefits. I am dedicated to pushing ahead on revisions. I don't lose things. I meet deadlines. But the next time someone says I wish I had your drive I'm going to be honest and say, Seriously, dude, you wouldn't wish for it at 4 A.M.

About: Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; Theories of Falling, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize; and the memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. Honors for her work include selection for the 2010 Best American Poetry, the University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She lives in Washington, D.C., where her prose has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine.

Pertinent links:

About Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl:

Direct to buy Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl:

Book trailer (very fabulous!):

More about the fabulous Sandra Beasley:

Sandra’s fabulous blog:

Because now I'm dying for a martini, Bluecoat gin (also fabulous):


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.