In the past few weeks, several people around me have raised the question of perfectionism. I’ve been asked how I deal with perfectionism, an issue I and many Americans struggle with. That being said, I have made some headway when it comes to perfectionism with my writing, where I’ve found some crossover.
After reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s creativity book, “Big Magic,” I’ve gained a better grip on what it means to experience writer’s block. She writes about her voice of fear and how an artist’s goal shouldn’t be fearlessness because the only people she’s known without fear were “straight-up sociopaths and a few exceptionally reckless three-year-olds.” She states that having fear is a good thing, healthy even. Her solution to fear’s attempts to silence her writing was to take it along for the ride, but she did not allow it to make contributions.
I didn’t want to strap my fear in the backseat and tell it to shut up, though. Somehow this seemed counterproductive. I wanted to understand why it was there in the first place.
So I took Gilbert’s ideas a step further by thinking about my inner critic. I imagined the part of myself who wants to create versus the part who wants to correct, criticize, or fear what I want to create. The critic put anything I created under a high-power microscope, and the conclusion was usually that my writing was terrible, cliched, and should never see the light of day.
As a kid, I remember those parts of me getting along fine. They knew what their roles were. The creator made things, and the critic was more of an editor who polished them up. They knew whose voice to listen to: their own. If I wanted to paint the sky green in my coloring book, no one could convince me it needed to look like the one outside. It was my sky.
But as the years went by, more and more opinions started flooding in from outsiders. The creator would go into hiding and the editor listened to those other opinions, knowing that they could be valuable to our growth. However, some harsh opinions are meant to wound and silence rather than help. Growing a thick skin requires believing in yourself more than other people. And if you believe them, you’re likely to become them. So eventually my editor turned into a critic. It said to make what the world wanted, believing that if I could just produce something the world loved, it would finally have some peace. It would finally be accepted in the world.
The problem is that the editor listened to everyone’s opinions, even the contradictory ones. This created the paradox of believing it could be good enough if A, B, and C were done. But if A, B, and C contradicted one another, I was left to create under impossible conditions, leading me to avoid picking up a pen.
Nearly every creativity book I’ve read has had something to say about the inner critic, and those opinions usually consisted of exercises to bottle it up. To me, that is silencing a part of myself that’s been mistaken for others’ negative opinions. It doesn’t account for the one who brought those opinions to me to help, the very part of myself who shielded the creator by taking the brunt of those opinions. The fact is, I was partially responsible for the way my editor turned out because instead of facing the sick, sad, angry parts of myself, in true American fashion I punished it and treated it as a problem, then swept it under the rug so I could play the hero pretending I was faultless.
I did myself a disservice by praising perfectionism because I cut part of myself off from the artistic process. Without my inner editor, I would produce raw material without any further guidance. Without my inner editor, I didn’t have someone who saw the bigger picture, who represented the whole of who I am and the vision I have for my art. My inner editor asked the important questions like, “Is my message fully formed?” “Can I cut or add anything that would help bring this point home?” “Did I communicate this in a way that is authentic to me?”
When I realized this, I started giving my inner editor the same love and devotion I gave my creative side, and it was no longer upset at its place in the assembly line. It no longer wanted to take my creative side’s place because I had shown its place to be just as valuable, needed, and appreciated. Instead of a fight in the assembly line, there was a co-creation of art that became the closest representation of how I see the world. This partnership came about by allowing myself the grace and dignity to admit that I was hurt by the criticisms of others and that I took those criticisms and turned them against myself.
Poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest being, something that needs our love.” In the battle against anything within, that has been very true for me and has made way for a reunion between the exiled parts of myself. Now, instead of hiding them away, I have embraced them and turned toward writing in a way that is truer to all parts of myself.
However, fear will always be present in some way. What if my true voice isn’t heard or accepted? When this fear becomes paralyzing, I think of a scene from one of my favorite shows, Sense 8, where one of the characters is on the cusp of achieving his dream career but can’t figure out why he’s not happy. He talks about feeling like a fraud, and his partner tells him, “You’re scared right now because art, like life, is full of risk, and that’s beautiful.”
It can be terrifying to present your entire self to the world knowing that no matter what there will be critics. But if your creative side and inner editor are working together, you are united for your art and your life. So the question then becomes this: What critic could possibly stand in the way of an artist who, with her entire being, chooses to have no shame in creating?