I almost published this article yesterday.
I delayed because it wasn’t perfect.
I’m writing a book right now about the creative process. It’s based on stuff in this blog, woven together in a more structured, comprehensive fashion, with exercises to help people implement what they’ve learned.
One of the strangest things about writing it has been that, with each chapter, I’ve faced the issue I was writing about:
- When I wrote about how to manage Impostor Syndrome, I had to manage mine.
- I procrastinated for weeks before writing about procrastination.
- When I wrote about connecting with other artists, I saw ways I’d become disconnected.
- When I wrote about learning the steps of the creative process and practising them, I wondered if I’d been devoting enough time to my own creative practice.
- When I tried to write about “forcing the Muse to spill her guts”, she went perversely quiet.
And now that I’m writing about perfectionism, my own perfectionism has me by the throat.
Perfectionism wants to know everything there is to know before starting. It wants to prevent anything from falling through the cracks. It ties us into ridiculous mental knots wherein we tell ourselves things like, “I can’t write an article on perfectionism because my knowledge of perfectionism isn’t perfect yet.”
Ummm… I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that, at this point, my knowledge of perfectionism is probably good enough.
For most of my life, those two words, “good enough”, have shimmered like a spot on the road that always seems reachable, but never is.
If anything has stunted my creative progress, it has been my struggle to get to that place.
Fear in fancy shoes
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.’”
We tell ourselves we’ve got high standards, when the truth is we’re just using those standards as an excuse to avoid releasing any work.
If we don’t release anything, no one will see how imperfect we are at the thing we want to accomplish. No one will laugh at us. No one will reject us. We’ll be safe.
Except that we won’t.
Unused creativity rots and festers inside us. As Brené Brown puts it in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Squandering our gifts brings distress to our lives. As it turns out, it’s not merely ‘too bad’ if we don’t use the gifts that we’ve been given; we pay for it with our emotional and physical well-being.”
I’ve paid that price. I avoided writing for years so I wouldn’t have to face the fact that I’m not Margaret Atwood, when in fact, no one is Margaret Atwood, except Margaret Atwood. That’s why comparison is so deadly: it makes us think we should be like people other than ourselves.
Perfectionism isn’t worth it. It doesn’t protect us from anything; it just exposes us to a slower and more insidious sort of pain than the pain of rejection or humiliation: the pain of not sharing our true selves with the world.
As Marie Forleo puts it, “Perfectionism will kill your dreams.”
A crack in everything
The closer I get to my book’s release date, (August 1st — you can hold me to it), the more I want to dig in my heels, the more I want to tell myself it isn’t long enough or original enough or beautiful enough, that no one will want to hear what I have to say about the creative process because I haven’t published my novel yet.
It’s not good enough, my inner critic hisses, so quietly I almost think the thought is mine instead of hers. You can’t release it until it’s perfect, and it’ll never be perfect.
That last part is true: it will never be perfect.
But that’s alright.
One of my favourite stanzas of poetry is this one, from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
I saw the truth of those lines demonstrated recently in The State Ballet of Georgia’s performance of Don Quixote. The prima ballerina, Lali Kandelaki, danced like I’ve never seen anyone dance before: her jumps were higher, her turns more numerous, her lines more graceful.
Everyone cheered the moment she appeared onstage, already anticipating the gasps of wonder she wouldn’t fail to elicit.
And she wasn’t perfect.
She stumbled once, hard enough that it was clearly not an intentional movement.
I thought, Oh no. How’s she going to recover from that? Is the performance ruined?
If anything, she brought more intensity, more grace, and more fire to her movements, and when she finished, I clapped until my arms ached, not just because of the beauty she’d shown me, but also out of gratitude for the reminder that our flaws don’t ruin anything, and no one, not even the prima ballerina of The State Ballet of Georgia, is perfect.
Perhaps she stumbled because she danced so hard.
George Saunders writes,
Any work of art quickly reveals itself to be a linked system of problems. A book has personality, and personality, as anyone burdened with one will attest, is a mixed blessing. This guy has great energy – but never sits still. This girl is sensitive – maybe too much; she weeps when the wrong type of pasta is served. Almost from the first paragraph, the writer becomes aware that a work’s strengths and weaknesses are bound together…
Maybe that’s the case with my creativity book, too. I wrote it because, although I’ve loved and benefited greatly from the work of Elizabeth Gilbert, Julia Cameron, Steven Pressfield, Stephen Nachmanovitch, James Clear, Graham Wallas, Danielle Krysa, Kenny Werner, Natalie Goldberg, Anne Lamott, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi… (the list goes on), I still longed for someone to lead me step-by-step from crippling self-doubt to the release of a project I could be proud of.
My book’s weakness is that I haven’t quite made it myself to the “release” part yet. Its strength is that I’m writing from the top of the fence we’re both trying to climb, snagging my jeans on the barbed wire and offering you my hand so we can jump down together to the other side.
Here’s what Brené Brown recommends:
1. Practice self-compassion.
“When we become more loving and compassionate with ourselves and we begin to practice shame resilience, we can embrace our imperfections,” she writes. “It is in the process of embracing our imperfections that we find our truest gifts: courage, compassion, and connection.”
Having unearthed those gifts, I suspect we’ll be more inclined to follow Marie Forleo’s advice:
2. Embarrass yourself.
In an episode of “Q and A Tuesdays” on Marie TV, Forleo says,
Go for progress, not perfection … The goal is to always keep yourself in a growth-oriented mindset where you’re focussed on learning and experimentation and just putting shiz out there … I will be the first person to say that the very first public version of almost everything I do, or everything I’ve done, when I look back on it, it’s actually pretty embarrassing. I mean, some of it is kind of mortifying, but you know what, I just don’t stop.
I want to be that brave.
Anaïs Nin wrote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
Perfectionism wants us to stay in that bud, which holds its shape better and is less prone to damage than the full-fledged flower.
But personally, I’d rather blossom.
That’s why, before June 1st, I’ll send the introduction and first chapter of my upcoming book to all my email list subscribers, whether I feel ready to or not.
Featured image: Photo by Kevin Urbanski.
What about you, Reader? Where is perfectionism holding you back? What’s some “shiz” you could release without waiting until it’s perfect? Let us know in the comments.
PS: Subscribe to my blog for free if you want to be on the list of people who’ll get a sneak peek at my upcoming book.
PPS: This article contains Amazon affiliate links, which means that, if you buy a book after clicking to it from this page, I’ll get a very small commission, although the cost for you won’t increase.