Every year, I rerun my popular 4-part series on perfectionism and how to overcome its potentially crippling effects on creativity. Here’s the third installment:
(To read the first installment, click here. For the second installment, click here.)
I’ve been thinking (and writing) a lot about perfectionism lately, and I can see two particular ways in which it has hampered my creativity over the years: Needing my life to be in perfect order before I can really devote time to writing. And feeling my writing isn’t good enough, because it’s not perfect. In this post, I’m going to talk about the first issue, and I’ll discuss the second one next time.
Here are some things I’ve learned: Life is messy. Creativity is messy. Muses come to you at the worst possible times. They arrive when you can’t possibly listen to them because your world will fall apart if you don’t finish the big work project/get another hour of sleep/re-grout the shower right now. They arrive when you’re tired and cranky and you don’t care about their amazing creative insights. They come to you straight from a Paris café on a sunny afternoon where they were just biting into the perfect tarte au citron. They arrive with crumbs still falling down their chins because they had a brilliant idea for you that couldn’t wait. They expect you to drop everything and listen to their inspirational comments.
Alternately, muses are good at vanishing. They disappear just when you want them the most. They start pouting and storm off right in the middle of a wonderful creative session. Or they suddenly have pressing business elsewhere and won’t stay, even when you beg. They abandon you, leaving you astonished because you thought things were going so well. Or they never arrive at all. They stop taking your calls and won’t tell you why.
And here’s the thing. If you want to create, you must create anyway. If you want to write or paint or sculpt or make music, you must write or paint or sculpt or make music in spite of everything. You must do it when your muse is acting up, and you must do it when you’re cranky, and you must do it when you’re busy.
Because if you don’t write, you’re not writing. If you don’t paint, you’re not painting. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard said “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” If you don’t spend your days creating, you’re not spending your life creating.
Not to put any pressure on you or anything.
Something else I’ve learned—and it’s taken me years to truly understand this—is that creativity can take place in tiny bites. You don’t have to set aside big chunks of time to write a novel. You don’t have to complete a short story in one sitting. Or a poem. Even a haiku.
I once completed a series of stories by setting aside 15 minutes a day when I was working full time and freelancing on the side and felt swamped all the time. I began stopping at a sheltered bench or a hotel lobby every morning after my commute downtown. I wrote for 15 minutes before heading to my office. Once I got into the flow of this daily writing habit, I was amazed at how much I could get done in such a short time.
You can spend five minutes creating metaphors twice a week, spend 15 minutes working on your memoir another three days, write a couple of lines in your head once or twice in the shower. If you engage in these small moments of creativity most days, a flow begins.
Soon the metaphor about the grandfather clock slips into your memoir as a pithy reflection on your family’s tendency to eat breakfast food at dinnertime. The quick description you wrote in your head while showering becomes a narrative about the bully who harassed you on your first day of elementary school. Before you know it, you’ve written the first five chapters of your book.
It really does work. And your days will feel richer because you’ve dotted them with creativity, and forced your Inner Perfectionist to go away and leave you alone.