Perfectionism: A Great Muse-Strangler, Part 4

Every Fall, I rerun my popular 4-part series on perfectionism and how to overcome its potentially crippling effects on creativity. Here’s the final installment:
(To read the previous installments, click here for Part 1, here for Part 2, and here for Part 3.)

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.

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.

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

  1. 1 Miss Hannah September 19, 2011 at 6:26 am

    So true, but easy to forget, I find this piece very encouraging, thank you! I hope the same goes for paintings and drawings…

    • 2 stranglingmymuse September 19, 2011 at 9:54 am

      It’s absolutely true for painting, drawing, and any other type of creative pursuit. I’m glad you find my words encouraging, Miss Hannah!


  2. 3 Dandy September 20, 2011 at 9:50 am

    I’ve made it a bit of a habit to swing by here every month or so, ever since I ‘discovered’ your wonderful blog a year ago. (Being in Sweden, I actually believe myself to be lucky to have stumbled across your blog! Just out of nowhere.). You make me feel stronger. Remind me to stay confident through all of the emotional/psychological hurdles one encounters when writing – and how to tackle them.

    Was then rather insecure about myself as a writer – actually having a serious go at it and completing a full manuscript (something I’d been very afraid of…) was fairly daunting. Adding all of the “buts” and “what ifs” to my serious case of the perfectionitis 🙄 and you might get the picture…

    All of the gushing from your readers are truly well deserved! 🙂 A visit here and you get your head screwed back on the right way again. I’ve learned to turn the fear I felt into a feeling of excitement and anticipation; will always have that flutter in the stomach, just before my fingers start typing, but now it’s something positive. Now I actually go the entire distance, instead of shying away from writing at all and blame it on fear and feelings of inadequacy, I order my fingers to just start typing, and we’re on our way! The fear walks off to a dark corner in the room and sulks 😉 while the story in my head floods the keyboards through my fingers and fills page, after page, after page…

    It’s like the light drizzle just seconds before a cloudburst. All you need to do is to let go; be open to- and accepting of yourself. Allow yourself to be flawed, to make mistakes and to learn. Writing is a process. You have to start it to begin with, and you can’t do that if you’re crippled by fear/ extreme perfectionism holding you back.

    So from this recovering ‘coward and perfectionist’, a hearty thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight! For turning on the light and forcing away the monsters thriving in the darkness nurished by our fears.

    I’m now +300 pages into my novel with about a 100 more pages to go. Oh, and once I started, the story grew, evolved and matured. So now it’s actually a trilogy: +300 pages on part 1, and +100 odd pages of notes and chapters into parts 2 and 3 already (and constantly growing)! I’ve never been more sure about how a story should play out, from begining to end 🙂

    Again, thank you for existing 😉 And sorry for the looong post 😯

    • 4 stranglingmymuse September 21, 2011 at 1:11 pm

      Dandy, thank you so much for your wonderful comment. It means a lot to me to hear about how your creative process has flourished in the last year! And I’m happy and humbled to have been a part of that.

      I LOVE what you’ve written about your process and the creative process in general. Thank you so much for sharing — it has probably helped some other people who are having the same struggles (as so many of us do!)

      Your comment touched my heart and made my day!! Thanks again for generously sharing here. And thank YOU for existing!

  3. 5 Dandy September 20, 2011 at 10:43 am

    A post scriptum before logging off WP:

    The blog connected to this gravatar is:

    * not related to writing/literature
    * not even in English
    * old and not active for the time being

    To save people from clicking and going “??!!#€$£&*?” …

  4. 6 yhosby November 20, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    My favorite quote is “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” So true. Your blog was so encouraging. It’s nice to hear other writer’s perspective on things because whenever I try to explain it to other people, they just don’t get it lol. They think writing is so simple. But, it’s not. It’s more than just putting the words on paper. You have to create a whole new world through your imagination.

    There’s rewrites, writer block, etc, No one ever wants to hear about that. But anyway, your blog is very refreshing, and I’ll subscribe to it right now.

    Keep smiling,

    • 7 stranglingmymuse November 21, 2011 at 1:33 pm

      I once read an article by a writer so tired of people not understanding how hard writing is that when a brain surgeon approached her at a party and said “I’ve always wanted to take off six months and write a novel,” she responded that she’d always wanted to take off six months to become a brain surgeon! The truth is that everyone who’s literate can write (an e-mail, a work memo, a class assignment), so they often don’t realize that it can take years of writing and developing your technique and style before you can create a novel or a lyrical memoir or even a good short story!

      I’m glad you like my blog, Yawatta, and thanks for subscribing!


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