Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Perfectionist and La Belle Vie

My guest today is Rebecca Ramsey, author of French By Heart, a slice of life book about her experiences living in France. She shares some thoughts on being a perfectionist and it's impact on her life and her love of writing.

I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!

Sia, you were so kind to invite me for coffee, and here I am, showing up out of breath and behind schedule! To beg your forgiveness I’ve brought you a little bouquet of dandelions I snatched out of my yard and a box of Pims from my cupboard. It’s my favorite French cookie, sort of like a vanilla wafer topped with raspberry and dipped in chocolate. I hope you’re not allergic.

I write memoir, which means I’m an expert on embarrassing myself in public. Let me tell you, living in France was the perfect training. During my first days (years?) I stumbled through my life, speaking like a caveman. “What time bus come?” “Bill late. I sorry. No turn off water please.” I arrived in France as a perfectionist and left four years later, remarkably comfortable with my own slackness. This was just what my writing needed.

As a young girl I’d wanted desperately to write. I entered contests and won a few prizes, but could I make writing my life? It was too painful. I wrote marvelously in my mind, but something always happened on the way to the page. I’d psyche myself up with Simon and Garfunkel, (the records were old even then—I’m not that ancient) write a page or two, and throw myself on the floor in despair. My poor mother.

I decided to major in Biochemistry instead.

After graduation I spent my days in the lab, writing poetry in my mind. It was a sad little life. I’d jot out elegant descriptions of crystalline precipitates that no one would ever read, and I’d agonize over the mice I killed. Wasn’t there more to life? I finally quit to teach chemistry to high school students. We’d work on stoichiometry and titrate acids with bases, but I also made them write poetry and work on their observational skills. “But this isn’t English class!” the students would protest.
Thank goodness France saved us all.

In France I couldn’t be perfect, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many hours I spent with Fabien, my handsome tutor. I had three kids to tend to, so I couldn’t hide in my house. The world would have to see me just as I was, an American idiot. And you know what? They didn’t care that I couldn’t speak perfectly! In fact, they seemed excited that I tried to speak at all. Old men would stop traffic for me and total strangers would offer me their help. They’d even invite me over for coffee and tell me how much I was improving!

Everywhere I turned in France, people were taking time to do what they loved. Why couldn’t I? My neighbor Alain spent his two hour lunch break playing his trumpet, Madame Charbonnier hid behind her hedges, reading stacks of trashy books, and Madame Fouriaux doted on a rose garden that filled my house with perfume. I started writing again, and this time I was kinder to myself. I put away my red pen and wrote page after page, never looking back. Okay, so that’s not true. I looked back a little. Old habits are hard to break. But now that I was more comfortable with my own mistakes, I let myself make them. I refused to quit.

I should admit to you that I had an unfair advantage, a little extra motivation in Madame Mallet, the strange old lady who spied on us from behind her lace curtain and called her nephew Le Spermatazoide, on account of the fact that he was conceived through artificial insemination. I’m telling you, anyone living across the street from Madame Mallet would have to write a book. My husband recently visited her on a business trip and told her about French by Heart. She looked at him coyly and said, “It’s about me, isn’t it?”

So friends, if you struggle with perfectionism, I wish you much humiliation! And your very own Madame Mallet!

After four years of la belle vie in Clermont-Ferrand, France, Rebecca Ramsey and her family are now settled back home in Greer, South Carolina. Between chauffeuring her children, observing her southern life, and keeping an eye out for French pastries, she writes every spare moment she can.
You can visit Rebbeca at her blog and website.
Rebecca's Blog: Wonders Never Cease, at
Rebecca's Website: