What is Perfect, Anyway?

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.“

—Martha Graham

What does the word “perfect” mean to you?

How does perfectionism affect your creative process?

Perfectionism has impacted mine.

I was raised to be a perfectionist. There were many reasons for this, including random outbursts of violence that could come at any time, always for some “reason” that never quite made rational sense.

Plus, I was smart. And good at things. This was useful, as it meant I could get the praise I wanted easily for many things. For the things that were harder? I just wouldn’t do them.

As an adult, I realized how detrimental this was to my life. I had to learn how to learn. And that was hard, because part of learning is not doing things well. We learn through practice. Through experimentation. And if we want things to be perfect? Well, experimentation and practice can feel brutal because we will feel as if we’re failing, all the time.

So even though I tried to commit myself to learning, I still wanted perfection and was hard on myself when I fell short. And this time, the blows came from inside me instead of outside.

One small event began to turn this around.

I used to be a professional dancer. After what I thought was a terrible performance—I was so angry with myself about it, I felt ready to kick a wall—someone came up to me to gush and tell me how wonderful the performance had been. They had loved it. Throttling down my anger, I forced myself to stand and smile, and finally said two words: “Thank you.”

In that moment, I glimpsed how disrespectful it was to that person’s experience to offer any other words than those of thanks.

It took me longer to realize how disrespectful I was being to myself and to my own creative process.

Perfectionism was trying to seize control. And it was ruining my life.

It almost ruined writing for me. I’ve written since age five. Writing was one thing I got rewarded for in school. I would write poems and essays with little effort, enjoying the flow of words.

That said, in my twenties, I went through a period where I labored for one year on a single short story, only to have it rejected. I labored over novels, getting stuck half or two-thirds through. Rather than getting interested at that point, I would grow frustrated, and abandon them.

Throughout this time, I was still writing poems and getting them published. I was dashing off articles and interviews and getting paid for them.

Finally, I decided, it was fiction that was the problem. I was just no good at it.

So, I wrote and sold non-fiction books, and essays for my blog, and traveled the world, and taught instead. It was great, but part of me always hoped I might get back to telling stories one day.

Years passed, and I finally gave that up as nothing more than a fantasy, because clearly, I wasn’t doing anything about it.

full blooming rose, with withering leaves. Text overlay reads "What is perfect, anyway?"

And then fiction came back to me in a rush of voices, of words wanting to be set to pixels and ink. And I had to learn how to treat fiction with respect, just as I’d learned to respect myself over the years. But harder than that? I had to learn to hold it lightly.

Over time, with study and practice, I learned what I call the technique of “write and release.” This means I write the story that wants or needs to be written and—whether or not I think it’s any good—I send it out into the world.

I had to learn to do what one of my writing mentors Dean Wesley Smith advises, which is to “write the next sentence.” If my brain locks up, or I want to figure out what the right direction is? I just take a breath, drop back into the character’s point of view, and I write the next sentence. And then the sentence after that.

Now, this process is fairly easy for me with non-fiction, but I know non-fiction writers who have the same issue. If this is you—regardless of what your art is—try it. Take a breath. Release your attachment to what’s right and drop back into your process.

These practices all help me to kick out perfection. My stories don’t need to be the perfect story, they need to be the stories they are. There’s a character with a problem, in some office building, or space station, or small village somewhere. I want to know what that place is like, and more importantly, how the character deals with that problem. I write. And then I release.

Easy?

With practice, it has become easy. I hold my writing lightly now. Every story and novel is not a precious jewel. They’re just stories. And some people enjoy the heck out of reading them.

There are many more ways to kick out perfection than I have space for in this essay. We can name our critics—internal and external—and banish them from our workspaces and our minds; we can re-commit, and show up to practice, day after day…

Most of all, we can learn to trust our inner voice. We can choose to listen to our creative drive more often than we listen to our fears.

Remember what Martha Graham said: “Keep the channel open.”

blessings – Thorn

 

This essay was funded by my amazing Patreon supporters!

Want to further explore perfectionism? I’m running my course “Kicking Out Perfection” at a 60% off discount to help out during these pandemic times. Just type PERFECT60 into the “coupon code” bar when you go to check out. That will drop the cost to $92.

 

Also, I have a new weekly newsletter I’m sending out as a way to try to connect better. Social media is such a weird vessel for communication. I encourage you to sign up and join the conversation.

 
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