We all want our creative projects to be perfect, but in reality perfectionism is a trap. In Finishing School: The Happy Ending To That Writing Project You Can't Seem To Get Done, we address the yearning for perfection and how it can stop you from realizing your writing goal. While we discuss how perfectionism relates to writing in the book, it can be applied to any creative endeavor.
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1. Perfectionism means you're not really free.
If you are trying to write (or draw, sculpt, decorate, you get the gist) perfectly, your attention is on all the ways your work falls short of perfection. You become critical of each word choice, each transition, each sentence. Often you hear the voices of critics and naysayers: all those who told you that you could not write, every teacher and writing group member who scoffed at something you wrote. This inhibits creative freedom.
Get past it: Your attention is not on the magical process of creativity but on some external ideal that you cannot possibly meet, or some admired and feared authority whom you cannot possibly please. Instead, free yourself from those voices and write despite them. You can always go back later and refine, but releasing your thoughts from your mind is the first step to overcoming writer's block.
2. Perfect writing—or perfect creative anything—does not exist.
Perfection exists in mathematics. There can be a perfect square or a perfect circle, but perfect writing, by definition, does not exist. Writing can only be judged subjectively. What may seem perfect to one reader will seem stiff or clichéd to another. Therefore, any writer who attempts to write an objectively perfect work will by definition fail. Knowledge of assured failure is a real motivation killer.
Get past it: So if you attempt to write a perfect work, you likely will give up. Write without the idea that it needs to be "perfect" and watch your hurdles melt away.
3. Perfectionism is no fun.
When you try to make something perfect, you find yourself in a space crowded with doubts and insecurities rather than a feeling that anything goes.
Get past it: One of the joys of creating is play. Your horizon is wide and you are in charge. You can conjure anything you want in this open space. Just do it, and see what happens. If it helps, set a timer for 30 minutes and give yourself a boundary to play. You might find that you want to go longer after you get into a flow.
4. Perfect can mean the writing is not genuine.
Unique writing voices are idiosyncratic. They may speak in incomplete sentences, have grammatical flaws, and repeat ideas because that is genuinely the way that people express themselves. If you hold yourself to a rigid standard, you may stifle these true voices because they do not sound respectable.
Get past it: If, however, you say something as only you can say it, your flaws and stumbles can be the most appealing part of the work. If everyone was perfect we'd all sound the same. People enjoy reading a variety of styles, and your imperfection is bound to give your work a unique flavor that no one else can access. Use it to your advantage.
5. Perfectionism may mean you are too entangled with the work to ever be satisfied.
Often the inhibition that comes with perfectionism is a melding of the work and the writer. The writer wants the work to be perfect because he or she wants to be seen as perfect. We are not perfect and neither is our writing.
Get past it: However, our work may be flawed in admirable ways because it expresses our truth, how we see the world, our broken hearts and our big dreams. Also, distance in the form of time and space helps to gain perspective. The flaws that you see from up close may well dissolve with a little break from the work. Try putting it away for a week to see what happens the next time you're frustrated.
6. Perfectionism gives the critics too much power.
The voices in your head that cause you to doubt your work are the small hearts and pessimists. If you get trapped in the idea of trying to please them, you cannot hear your own voice.
Get past it: Remind yourself of this every time you get a negative comment. Also remember that not all criticism or feedback is bad and that many people want to help you. Let them by being honest with yourself: Take the feedback you need with humility and leave what you don't. That's true empowerment.