Perfectionism: A Great Muse-Strangler, Part 4

Have you ever written a story (an essay, a screenplay, a poem…), then decided it wasn’t worth the price of the paper and ink you wasted on it? Have you imagined people laughing when they read it (and not in a good way)? Have you believed your work had no sparkle, was boring, was not noteworthy?

If you’re a writer, the answer is probably yes.

In my last post about perfectionism, I discussed the importance of creating even when your life isn’t in perfect order. But what if you’ve managed to write something you don’t believe deserves to see the light of day?

Here’s a little secret my Inner Perfectionist tried to hide from me for a long time: a lot of what you write will be bad. Or uninspired. Boring. Or half-finished because the idea fizzled out. And that’s okay. It’s not only okay, it’s part of the creative process.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: Producing bad writing is part of the creative process.

reflected trees

It’s easy to imagine our favorite authors sitting at their desks, inspired every day while they effortlessly write out the masterpieces we love, barely changing a comma once they’ve finished. But it’s important to remember they struggled just as much as we do.

Here’s a little proof:

Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper. —Isaac Bashevis Singer

Easy reading is damn hard writing. —Nathaniel Hawthorne

Every writer I know has trouble writing. —Joseph Heller

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. —George Orwell

The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with. —William Faulkner

I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within. —Gustave Flaubert

I could go on, but you get the point.

Here’s the only way I know to combat this problem: Allow yourself to make mistakes. Write with abandon. Fail spectacularly.

An editor once told me my submission to his literary journal was the silliest story he’d ever read. Ouch! My own Inner Perfectionist couldn’t have dismissed my efforts with more derision. But I didn’t let his comments stop me. Okay, I may have cried a little. Or cursed the editor for his abysmal judgment. It’s possible I stuck a few pins into my literary journal editor-shaped voodoo doll.

But then I picked myself up, applied some ego salve to my bruised psyche, and raised my pen again. Because here’s what I’ve learned: Creative gems live in the middle of piles of dreck. Diamonds aren’t mined from pits lined with sheets of diamond, and gold isn’t panned from rivers of gold. These things are more valuable because they are rarer than the rock and the water they inhabit. You have to get your hands dirty, covered in grit and slime, to pull out a gem. It’s the same with a work of art.

mine tunnel

The only way to write a good story (essay, screenplay, poem…) is to write lots of bad stories (essays, screenplays, poems…). Embrace your mediocre writing and your pieces that fizzle out. Because the more rock you chisel through, the closer you get to a diamond. And once you start finding diamonds, a funny thing happens. Your percentage of dirty rock to diamond shifts, and you gradually begin to find more precious things within your huge pile of work.

It’s never going to be all diamonds and no rock. Not even close. But as you continue to work at your craft, you learn to spot the diamonds more easily and to mine them faster. You learn to polish dull gems and make them shine. And, perhaps most important, you finally learn to stop hating the rock. Because you realize it’s just a layer you must get through in order to reach the jewel within.

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


13 Responses to “Perfectionism: A Great Muse-Strangler, Part 4”

  1. 1 SyedMohammadQasim October 7, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Wow What an article , Its after a long time I have come across an article which is so inspiring and carries such a deep abiding truth which we most oftoen fail to note .

    Great Sandy !Keep going .

    • 2 stranglingmymuse October 7, 2009 at 11:07 am

      Thanks so much for your wonderful comment, Syed! I’m glad my thoughts touched you — and hearing that my words inspire people helps me to keep going!

  2. 3 K a b l o o e y October 7, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    You’re right. Again. (Do you find your diamond-like brilliance exhausting? What a burden.)

    I jest.

    Really, though, you are so right. I get angry and frustrated, but when honest, I know I’ve not worked as hard as I need to to get better. People write piles of screenplays until they teach themselves how to write a good one. Same with drafts of novels, stories, etc. But I appreciate the reminder, as well as the specific insight that the ratio of gem:dross will increase too.

    • 4 slacker-chick October 8, 2009 at 9:33 am

      I’ll definitely have to re-read your Perfectionist posts before I begin NaNoWriMo next month – it’s all about quantity (of words) over quality – so no perfectionism allowed (until you start revising of course). Thanks Sandy – very helpful (and I’m not jesting like that big jester Kablooey! ;->).

  3. 5 Heather October 8, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Very helpful advice! I particularly like your admission of failure-very brave! And probably why you write so well.

    To allow yourself to fail is the key to improving your writing I’ve always found it difficult to hand over my imperfect work. However, the more I hand over the easier it gets. I just had to realise that the sky doesn’t fall in.

  4. 6 stranglingmymuse October 9, 2009 at 9:18 am

    Thanks for the comments — I’m glad my thoughts on the subject are helpful.

    Carrie, yes, I need to go lie down now to recover from the burden of my thinking! Actually, it’s only my many years of stop-and-start creativity and other kinds of “failure” that have led me to have some small insight on these things. Glad my decades of frustration are finally paying off on this blog.

    Rochelle, good luck with NaNoWriMo! I found Write or Die to be incredibly helpful when I did it last year, because it forces you to just write without allowing the Inner Perfectionist a voice.

    Heather, I found you on She Writes and notice you have a blog. I’ve found blogging to be a real exercise in handing over imperfect work, since it’s necessary to write relatively quickly and constantly if you want to keep the blog active. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!


  5. 7 Heather Conroy October 9, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    I just felt a bit of panic when you said you’d noticed I had a blog 🙂 It was a big step to add it to She Writes. I am the only traffic there I think-I have to say I LOVE having a blog. Thanks for the tips.

    • 8 stranglingmymuse October 11, 2009 at 12:31 pm

      I’m sorry my comment made you feel panic! But congratulations on stepping outside your comfort zone — that’s a great way to move forward in your creative life, and also to slap down that pesky Inner Perfectionist. I love your blog, by the way. It’s well-written, interesting and shows a bit of your personality. Keep it up!

  6. 9 Heather Conroy October 12, 2009 at 1:52 am

    Hey thanks so much for your encouragement and feedback. You have a generous heart.


  7. 11 Annette November 4, 2009 at 7:20 am

    I once applied for a prestigious MFA program, but wasn’t chosen, so I made an appointment with the chair of the department and asked him why. He pulled out an index card file box, looked over my feedback card, and said: “You were not selected to participate in the program because your writing is comically preposterous.”

    Comically preposterous?!

    That statement took me out at the knees. My muse cried like a wounded child and I didn’t write again for several months. Then I decided the reviewer was a gold-plated douche bag and I went back to doing what I love. And I’m still writing 13 years later.

    • 12 stranglingmymuse November 4, 2009 at 9:28 am

      Ouch! I think your assessment of the reviewer was generous, after a comment like that about your writing. I’m so glad you didn’t let his mean-spirited comment stop you from pursuing your creative passion!

  1. 1 The Mad Editor’s Round-Up #17 | Diary of a Mad Editor Trackback on April 28, 2010 at 7:23 am

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