Perfectionism: A Great Muse-Strangler, Part 3

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.

puzzle pieces
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.

Copyright © Sandy Ackers, Strangling My Muse: Struggling to Live a Creative Life in a Stressful World,


7 Responses to “Perfectionism: A Great Muse-Strangler, Part 3”

  1. 1 elucian October 4, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Isn’t it amazing, not to mention frustrating, how we have received these ideas of perfectionism in our lives, how we expect to be able to clear the way for a project, to “get everything in order” BEFORE we even start!

    • 2 stranglingmymuse October 5, 2009 at 9:41 am

      Good point. I’ve spent my entire life so far unlearning those lessons. And I think creativity is often born out of the chaos of life — you just have to be willing to let the chaos exist while you stop and write or paint (or make music!)

  2. 3 K a b l o o e y October 4, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    Dear Sandy:

    Thanks a lot for writing this. I really do identify. I create a lot of unneeded anxiety for myself by putting off tasks, even things related to creative work. Since reading this post, I’ve gotten myself to commit to small bursts of “just getting it done” — making myself read the directing actors book I’ve been avoiding, making the call I’ve been putting off (all tasks that are part of this new creative challenge; I’m not talking about procrastinating unfolding the laundry. I do that without making myself an anxious mess.)

    And I wrote two (intentionally bad, I swear) metaphors into the end of my last post, so you are rubbing off in all sorts of ways. And I don’t mean that you need to switch moisturizers.

    • 4 stranglingmymuse October 5, 2009 at 9:57 am

      Wow, I really appreciate you telling me this. It means a lot to hear that my words have helped you. I find the “small bursts” method not only helps me get things done/written when I don’t have much time, but it also alleviates the pressure to create something perfect. Good luck, and let me know how it goes!


      p.s. I like your metaphors!

  3. 5 K a b l o o e y October 9, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Thanks, Sandy. And you just helped me again, because I was (truly) procrastinating away the hour I have to review notes before meeting with someone regarding my current project-thingie, and after napping away my exercise time because I wanted to be focused and ready for the meeting, I was reading blogs (great, helpful ones such as yours, but still… ). Now I’m signing off and going to do my work, so you helped me twice with one post. Can you arrange to hav it blink onto my computer daily? Maybe I can make a needlepoint sampler.) But then I’d miss the amazingly apt photos, which are, of course, metaphors themselves. Where do you find them? That’s what I meant to ask in the first place. Off to work; thanks again, sensei.

    • 6 stranglingmymuse October 9, 2009 at 1:42 pm

      I’d love to see that needlepoint sampler! I get the majority of my photos from various sites with public domain images (find by googling “public domain images”). I’m using this one a lot these days: Good luck with your project! I’d love to hear more about it, if you feel like sharing.

  1. 1 Perfectionism: A Great Muse-Strangler, Part 4 « Strangling My Muse Trackback on April 25, 2010 at 1:27 pm

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Kaizen-Muse Creativity Coach and Writer.

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