Perfectionism: A Great Muse-Strangler, Part 4

Every year, 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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