Perfectionism is Hard

23:50 Mon 30 Aug 2010
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I haven’t been that happy with my blog posts recently. It’s not that I think all of them are terrible, or that the quality suddenly dropped off a cliff, but I feel as if there’s been a decline. It’s tough to measure this, of course, with no clear criteria. But that I feel this way is indicative of some problem.

At the same time, I feel as if I haven’t been writing what I want to write, mainly because I’ve shied away from a lot of topics that I’ve wanted to write about.

The general pattern is that I think of something I want to write about, something I usually either feel strongly about, or want to work out my thoughts on, or both. Then I think it over for a little while and come up with some ideas on how I’ll approach it as a post. Then it comes time to write the post, and I resist writing about that topic. Usually because I feel that it will require too much time, or too much effort, or both, to do it justice. So then I try to write about something else instead, something less demanding.

The subsequent search for the less demanding thing often takes more time than writing the original post would have. Occasionally I end up writing about something else equally demanding, which is fine, but usually I find something brief and light instead.

There’s nothing wrong with brief and/or light posts. But there is something wrong with writing them because I’m avoiding writing about something else. Even more so when that something else is actually a topic I want to write about.

I want to write about it, but somehow this desire moves into the realm of theory, and instead of being a motivating force becomes a heavy weight, having undergone the deadening transformation from “want to write” to “should write” to “should already have written”.

That description skips a step, the critical one where the desire to write dissipates but the loyalty to the topic remains. I suspect that this step has much to do with placing high expectations on the finished product.

Originally I was going to title this post “Writing is Hard”, but while that may certainly be true, the current title is more germane. It’s not writing per se that I’m having trouble with, it’s writing in the shadow of my expectations. It’s grappling with the fact that some part of my mind has already calculated (using unknowable metrics) how “good” the post “should” be, and some other part of my mind then blanches at having to meet this standard.

This is perfectionism, hiding in plain sight, masquerading, as it often does, as a heartfelt and genuine concern for quality—not just quality in terms of what the output is like, but of course also the quality of my writing experience, for it feels that it would be terrible if I inadvertently got into the habit of not giving my all to topics I write about. That, it says, would be tragic. That would be a terrible waste, as I would then have not just shitty output but a shitty process as well, the worst of all worlds.

By some remarkable coincidence, the presence of this perfectionism has helped me to my current point, where I’m concerned about… shitty output and a shitty process.

Even after more than four years of regular public writing, a practice I took up in large part to try to get past the perfectionism that I felt was holding back my writing, I still appear to have a lot of difficulty trusting myself enough to just let go and write about whatever interests me. Perhaps the most insidious thing is that this perfectionism creeps in partly by way of my pride in the pieces that I regard highly. After all, if I’ve written them, it’s clear I can achieve a high standard, so less would be a failure.

One of the reasons I write this blog is for practice. Practice so that I can be a better writer. It’s definitely helped, but practice, mere activity, isn’t enough—to really improve, one needs “directed practice”, which I haven’t seen clearly defined anywhere but which I think I understand. It takes a certain focus, a focus that is not always easy to summon. In the time I’ve been blogging, I think I’ve done that for concentrated periods, but I (clearly) haven’t managed to make it properly habitual.

In terms that will sound awfully self-helpy, I think that almost any conscious concern with the quality of the product of the endeavor is counterproductive. At the same time, concern with the quality of the process is quite important. On top of that, though, this concern with the quality of the process cannot be allowed to silence the writing voice. The writing voice must be heard, and respected, but with a recognition that when it drifts away, or goes silent, the conscious mind will do its best to take over and will respect the intent of what that voice was trying to achieve.

If this sounds like vague and unverifiable crap to you, well, it sounds that way to me too, but with an additional maddening conviction that it’s extremely important. There is a balance that must be struck here, and describing it may be even harder than striking it. For me, I tilt so far to the side of inner editorial control that some of that will always be present even when I try to just “write free”, and so my worries about somehow disengaging too much are unrealistic to say the least. Furthermore, I need to keep in mind that even if ninety, or ninety-five, or even ninety-nine, percent of what I write here is crap, that will still result in a few good posts per year, which is infinitely better than none. This is not a new thought, but it is one that I need to remind myself of, and to explicitly write out.

It’s not as simple as just writing what I want to write about. But writing about the things that I’ve recently wanted to write about would be fine, far better than my current approach of letting the ideas die, their dead weight immediately landing on top of new ideas, gradually making creativity in general much more laborious. This is how perfectionism makes things hard—not just in an exacting and demanding and up-front way, associated with much editing and rewriting until things are just so, but also in subtly making creativity and self-expression far less appealing, far less fun.

5 Responses to “Perfectionism is Hard”

  1. Graham Says:

    Perhaps if you don’t end up ever posting about those things you originally wanted to, the above should be regarded with suspicion?

  2. Tadhg Says:

    I’m not sure I follow what you mean. Do you mean that the advice (such as it is) contained within that post should be regarded with suspicion if it doesn’t prove useful by helping me write the pieces I referred to? That makes sense, as a conclusion. The overall post, however, should probably not be regarded with suspicion even if I never write those pieces; the general point about perfectionism and its effects remains true regardless of future success or failure in overcoming it.

  3. Graham Says:

    The overall post would have to be regarded with suspicion if it didn’t prove useful in helping you write the pieces you referred to – because truth on the topic of perfectionism, coming from the perfectionist himself, in the wake of perfectionism that permanently wiped out a series of artistic expressions, may well be indistinguishable from said perfectionism and in fact part of its perpetuation.

  4. Tadhg Says:

    I’d never watched the scene, or seen the movie, before, but it’s sampled in the Kleptones’ “This Song Smells” and somehow it seems like an appropriate response to your comment (the relevant part is between 2:55 and 3:17):

    More seriously, even if the exposition of my piece doesn’t help me—and I think it has—it’s still likely to be useful to someone, as an honest exploration of the subject at hand.

  5. Graham Says:

    Your piece helping others, while hindering you, provides little comfort to me Tadhg – so here’s hoping I just need to attend a wedding ministered by Donald Sutherland!

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