PERFECTIONISM: SOME BRIEF THOUGHTS
Somewhere in the midst of writing my novel, I reached a point where I could barely proceed. I’d hit writer’s block, though perhaps not in the way that most people think of it. I knew what story I was telling and everything that was supposed to happen regarding plot and characters. But somehow I grew incapable of composing a single paragraph that satisfied me. Sentence by sentence I began falling into the pernicious, deadly pattern of editing while I wrote, which over time gave rise to an obsessive perfectionism that constricted me. Writing, once my passion and joy, became a miserable, taxing ordeal, a gruesome slog, something I utterly dreaded and only continued because I had already gone too far in my work to turn back. At one point, when I realized it had taken me ten hours to compose a single page, I stopped and told myself, “It didn’t used to be like this. Something is different. Some part of your creativity is broken. What happened?”
I knew I was struggling with perfectionism, but even that wasn’t the bottom of it. The real problem had to be something deeper—where was this perfectionism coming from? After giving it a great deal of thought, I remembered learning how fear and desire—so often entwined—are two of the most fundamental emotions. I realized something crucial about my motives in writing, and in how my priorities had changed without me realizing. And with it, I gained a new insight into the nature of my creativity.
Healthy creativity, I realized, should come from desire. The desire to make something, the desire to tell a story, the desire to build something with one’s hands, explore one’s talents, and push the limits of one’s power. It is a vigorous, insistent, and at times unruly thing.
Perfectionism, on the other hand, is born from fear. That was what had changed inside me, and what was lying at the very bottom of my writer’s block. Whereas before I had been motivated by the desire to write, now I was held back by the fear of writing poorly. Whereas before I had been driven by the desire to tell a story, now I was consumed by the fear of writing something with which others might find fault. My creativity had dried up because fear had replaced desire.
I won’t pretend this insight broke me through my writer’s block all at once. But it certainly cracked the wall standing in my way. With the true culprit properly identified, I could begin working on conquering my writer’s block in earnest. Bit by bit, and after a lengthy struggle, the wall gave way.
To remind myself of the perils of perfectionism and editing while writing, I have in one of my desk drawers a page that took me several days to write—as a first draft. I had been so obsessed with getting each sentence right the first time that I had lost my flow and with it, the heart of the narrative. Looking back at it now, it is a testament to wasted time—line after line of pretty sentences that, when read together, are utterly soulless. Consumed in the minutest details, I failed to capture the heart of the scene. It is a page written void of desire. It is a page written in fear. And just as a good tree cannot grow in bad soil, how can healthy art ever be born out of fear?
Perfection in art is a chimera. On some level we all know it’s unattainable, but those fools among us still tell ourselves we can reach it, or get close to it. And since only a fool obsesses over what he cannot attain, all perfectionists are fools.
I know myself—the battle against impossible standards is one I’m sure I will have to fight again. But at least next time I’ll approach the fight a tad wiser.