In writing, as in any area of life, perfectionism is a killer. Writing is a wonderful metaphor for life. Writing matters. It illuminates, witnesses, takes us deeper into the experience of others, connects us with nature, humanity, ourselves. As in writing, so in life.
Writing is powerful and we want it to be brilliant. No writer should be content with dull prose clogged with adjectives and exposition. No writer should be happy with didactic, sentimental poetry. No blogger should want to bore people. But it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it can’t be perfect.
Perfectionism relies on a plethora of false premises:
Failure is not an option
Of course it is. And failure is a great teacher. In the inimitable words of Samuel Beckett:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
If we fear failure we will never take the risks that lead to real progress.
You are not worthy
Feeling inherently not ‘good enough’ can lead people to making supreme efforts to fit in, find acceptance and love. The underlying thinking is that ‘if I’m perfect I won’t experience rejection’ but it’s false thinking. We’re all flawed and the writing we do will have flaws. It doesn’t make you an unworthy person.
You can never rest
On the one hand perfectionism leads to procrastination. We can’t fail at what we never begin. On the other hand it leads to a permanent state of anxiety in which we drive ourselves on, never able to rest.
Creativity, writing, any activity in life is unsustainable without periods of rejuvenation. You can and must rest.
Life is a puzzle with a solution
Writing in Psychology Today, Jennifer Kromberg says:
…being a perfectionist isn’t about things being perfect; it’s about thinking things need to be perfect and vigilantly pursuing it. Emotionally, this means that instead of living your life in a place of self-acceptance, perfectionists are on a continual treadmill chasing the elusive feeling of having everything in their lives be ‘right’.
You can do it all
As David Allen says in Getting Things Done:
You can do anything, but not everything.
We all have to make choices. If writing is essential to you, then you need to prioritise it, but that might mean you have to lower your standards in other areas. In Writing Wild Tina Welling talks a lot about lowering standards in order to do what she loves: write.
She suggests areas for lowering standards might include the car you drive, how much money you want, the clothes you wear, the amount of housework you can do… You might have to cut down on social media or phone apps or answering every email. You might have to miss some social opportunities…
It’s okay. You don’t have to do it all. To quote Annie Dillard:
It’s endearing how people think writers have time to dust.
Welling suggests we make a sign of this and hang it where visitors will see it.
Instead of falling for these false notions, we can replace the urge to perfectionism (in writing and in life) with progress, joy and kindness:
Craft not perfection
Striving is excellent. When we’ve finished a piece of writing , we should let it settle. Later, revisit it with fresher vision, edit it, then repeat. I’m a strong advocate of edit, edit, edit, wait. Followed by edit, edit, edit…
In the book So good they can’t ignore you, Cal Newport advises that we adopt a craftsman mentality. We ask what we are good at and how we can get better. We stretch our abilities through deliberate practice, developing skills that bring creativity, impact and control.
Adopt a craftsman mindset and then the passion follows.
It’s both a way to focus on what we can give to the world and a route to developing a higher level of consistency, generosity and clarity that will stretch, challenge and delight you. In writing it’s a way of writing prose that is tight, well-paced and shimmers or poetry that, in the words of Kafka,
must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
But there is a world of difference between stretching our boundaries, honing our skill and striving for the next level of craft and perfectionism.
Joy not fear
Perfectionism presents itself as a kind of rampant egoism: not letting go of any work until it’s perfect; not taking joy in achievements, but driving yourself further. The egoism is a symptom of the underlying disease, which is fear.
In Bird by Bird Anne Lammott cautions:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life… I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
In short, perfectionism rests on fear. It’s the terror that we can’t put anything into the world until it’s perfect, but the extra catch is that perfectionists rarely, if ever, think anything they do is perfect. It’s a way of paralysing ourselves rather than making consistent progress and stretching ourselves.
Perfectionism is a way of sucking all the joy out of writing or out of life at large. In Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, Iddo Landau notes that meaningful lives don’t have to be perfect. We can celebrate
an ordinary life well lived.
Take joy wherever you find it along the way.
Kindness not comparisons
So often perfectionism has us looking at others and thinking they have it all worked out. It’s easy to see what’s on the surface of someone else’s life. But everyone, no matter how ‘successful’ has struggles. What’s often amazing is how so many of us get through our days given how much is going on at any one time.
Don’t imagine the person with the gorgeous house decorated with antique furniture has no self-doubt or suffering. Don’t imagine the writer with three award winning novels doesn’t struggle to start writing every time she sits down.
Instead of comparing yourself to others, take a deep breath and be kind to yourself. In her poem, ‘Wild Geese’ Mary Oliver suggests:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Oliver is a poet who takes her craft seriously. She is not someone who is advising us to do sloppy, lack-lustre work. But she also knows that driving ourselves hard, never allowing that anything we write is good enough is self-destructive. Moreover, it will bring us to a stand-still when the reverse, striving, but not fearing failing, will push us forwards. In the words of Epictetus:
We don’t abandon our pursuits because we despair of ever perfecting them.
By all means be ambitious. By all means have huge dreams and do what is needful to bring them to fruition, but don’t let perfectionism petrify you. Remember:
- It’s better to try and fail, learn and move on
- All humanity is flawed, but you are still worthy
- Rest and rejuvenation are essential
- You don’t have to do it all: lower your standards in the non-essential areas
- Striving, honing your craft and making progress trumps perfection
- You have a lot more joy without perfectionism
- Don’t compare yourself to others who may seem to be doing better. You never really know and in any case comparison is odious and demotivating.
- Be kind to yourself:
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
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