On Dealing With Perfectionism As a Creative
Last week, I opened my inbox to see an enticing subject line staring back at me. A major Australian publication had reached out and asked if I’d like to write a piece for them.
Cue the imposter syndrome, the existential crisis, and the self-doubt.
On one hand, I was thrilled. This by-line would boost my portfolio and my street cred — plus, I didn’t even have to pitch them. Score!
But a larger part of me was consumed with anxiety over writing it.
You see, this was no ordinary piece. After the editors read Ben’s piece about living with cerebral palsy, they turned around and asked me to write about my side of the story: what it’s like to date someone with a disability?
Having to craft such a personal piece in a short time-frame, knowing it was going to be published on a large platform, made me want to hurl.
This angst manifested as an ugly writer’s block that stopped me from stringing any useful words together or creating a story with a logical flow. I rewrote whole paragraphs, tossed paper into the virtual trash can, and started from scratch more times than one.
“Don’t you write for a living,” my inner critic screeched at me. “How can you call yourself a writer if you publish crappy stories.”
It’s easy to write for other people, I wanted to wail back to her.
When it comes to writing for my clients, it’s never easy. But it’s easier. I have enough emotional distance from my clients’ businesses to clearly see the strengths in their story, write on their behalf, and write well.
When I’m rewriting a client’s website, I’m not thinking about whether someone from high school is going to judge what I’m doing with my life. I’m not thinking about whether someone I used to date will stumble across the website, or if my family are going to pick apart my story. All I’m focused on is stringing together the right words that will make my client’s dream audience want to press Buy or Book Now.
Yet, when it comes to writing my own stories, I always feel like setting my laptop on fire. No matter how many times I tinkered or tweaked the sentences, it never felt as good as what I wanted it to be.
I know I’m not the only one who’s felt this way.
This feeling is what I’ve come to recognise as perfectionism — something all creatives are burdened by. To us, our craft is an integral part of our identity. It forms who we are, so we want to make sure that whatever we put out into the world truly represents how we want to be perceived.
As a result, we overthink.
We stress, cry, and throw tantrums a five-year-old would be proud of because our work isn’t anywhere close to the gold standard. We create this narrative in our mind that everything is hinging on this one piece of work. If it’s good, it’ll lead to instant success. If people hate it, we’re not worthy of calling ourselves writers, artists, or whatever label we desire.
So we buckle down and we strive to make it perfect, immaculate, pristine.
Sometimes, we’re able to polish it up to the point where we’re ready to release our art into the world.
But more often than not, we let perfectionism hijack our car and plant herself in the driver’s seat.
We never publish the blog post.
We don’t start the business.
We let our dreams and our goals gather dust in the dark corner, and we tell ourselves we’ll only release it once it’s perfect.
As someone who’s still wrestling with perfectionism in the arena, I don’t feel qualified to stand (sit?) on this virtual platform and tell you all the ways you can beat it.
At the moment, perfectionism is winning. I know I need to rewrite my website to reflect my new services, but I’m scared to upload it because it ain’t perfect yet. I have blog pieces buried deep in the recesses of my virtual folders because, again, it’s not perfect. And there are so many things I want to talk about on social media, but won’t (yet) because it’s not the perfect time.
I’m not going to spout out more cliches about how as imperfect humans, we should be ok with imperfections. I know you know this. But I’m writing to say that everyone – no matter how far along they are on the journey – goes through a stage where they’re crippled by the desire to be perfect.
What I will do, is let someone far more wise and eloquent than me take over and give you the pep talk I needed to hear when I was in the throes of despair.
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me.
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.
And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes awhile. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.
— Ira Glass
For anyone’s who still curious, I ended up finishing the piece about dating someone with a disability. Writing it felt like pulling pins out of my eyes, but I still submitted it to the editors to be published this week, despite it not being perfect.
No matter how many people told me they loved it, I still cringe inside when I read it, and I know it’s not my best work. But if what dear Ira says is true, then so long as I continue to show up, do the work, and release it in all its imperfect glory, I’ll eventually reach a point where I can close the gap. Hopefully.