Is Perfectionism Blocking Your Writing Process?

I’ve written a few posts now on overcoming creative blocks and editing your creative work to get it ready for submission. However, a key part of the writing process I haven’t written about – and perhaps we as writers often hide from the outside world – is the whole messiness of the creative process itself.

Writers as Perfectionists

Many of us have unique ways of working. Some of us like lists, plans and logical orders. Some of us prefer a loose outline or theme to give us a sense of direction while we’re writing something new. And others of us just go all-out divebombing into the writing, scattering the words like confetti and snatching excitedly at whatever comes our way.

What we present to the outside world will likely have then gone through a stringent editing process to make it polished and acceptable to the wider audience. Many of us are, by nature, perfectionists, with an ‘all or nothing’ mindset. It’s either perfect or a failure. Admitting our mistakes and faults along the way can seem alien in a society that’s conditioned to present only the highlights and the triumphs. 

Take end-of-year exams, for example. The only ones to announce their results publicly, grade by individual grade, are the ones who achieve a mark they believe others will deem acceptable and worthy of congratulations. Very rarely will these people talk about the late nights, the failed practice questions, the extra help outside of the classroom or the mental struggles that may have surrounded these results. 

And those who do not receive grades they deem worthy of announcing are silenced entirely. And that makes me sad. We weren’t designed to fit in a box labelled ‘perfect’.

It’s no wonder the same can often happen with with our creative work. Everyone has a voice worthy of expression yet the pressure to be perfect can stop us in our tracks before we even get started on the process.

And there’s power in that process.

Focus on the Process, Not Always Publication

This may seem contradictory if your aim is to get published: but sometimes, it’s worth just focusing on the process and ignoring, for once, the goal of publication. 

This isn’t a request that you approach your work with laziness or increasing apathy. But no writer sits at their desk to start writing and adds another polished poem to the ‘Completed’ folder at the end of their writing session every time. 

How many gorgeously bound notebooks do you own, still pristine and untouched, because you feel each word needs to be perfect as it hits the page? I for one have far too many, just begging to feel the touch of ink. Yet my most frequently used, and consequently most valuable notebooks, are those scrappy little exercise books only usually seen in classroom storage cupboards. 

However, notebooks should aid and facilitate your creative process, not hinder it. Think of those notebooks by well-known writers: how much insight can we glean now from the abandoned notebooks of Dylan Thomas, for example? Every crossing-out and revision is a chance to allow each word to be questioned, transformed, deleted and replaced – yet its original expression is still there, intact, like a word carved into stone and buried beneath a layer of snow.

Write simply because you need to. If the poem doesn’t work, simply make peace with it and then let it be.

I have hundreds of abandoned drafts; none of which I have deleted. Some make me actively cringe and shudder to read them back, but there are those gems that have re-emerged months or years later, in a totally new form. An abandoned line here or a clunky phrase there has often been the fuel I needed to express the words later on, when I’d processed what I needed to say and the time was more suitable.

Shrug off that weight of perfectionism. You can’t write with its colossal weight pinning your arms to your sides.

“Did the Creative Process Serve Me?”

Some of my poems will never be worthy of publication but have  provided immense relief when writing. I am learning along the way not to be frustrated with those pieces but to ask myself: “Did the process serve me?”

If the creative process itself is healing, enlightening, soothing or just gave you joy, then it isn’t a waste. Getting in the flow and routine of writing is worth every bit of practice. It ensures you have more days where you want to get to your writing desk and can get into the flow of writing with greater ease, until that day where, finally, you’ve produced something worth polishing for publication.

I’ve got an impressive record of terrible artwork, all now bounced off into the eternal pit of the wastepaper basket. I’ve stabbed my way through some truly botched attempts at cross-stitch and completely slaughtered well-known guitar riffs. My car singing, I’m not ashamed to admit, is strictly done with the windows rolled up and definitely not accommodating of the high notes. 

Even with less creative pursuits, such as running, my marathon training has never been without the failed training sessions. I’m talking about the runs where multiple hypos or other type one diabetes troubles saw me abandon all attempts two miles in; the ones where my knee forced me into a walk; or the ones where the energy or mood just wasn’t right and I turned home to go to sulk in bed. 

But every single one of those training sessions, although not perfect, formed a key part of my marathon training journey.

They all got me across that finish line. Just as those hundreds of failed poems eventually paved the way for the better ones to appear in publications.

Embrace the Imperfect

I’ve somehow managed to write around 40 new poems since lockdown started and am still going, no matter how hard some days it is to snatch a little glimmer of time.

Not all of these words have been written with publication in mind, but just to channel them somewhere, anywhere, because they begged to be unearthed. I’m not sure what I’d have done without my love for writing. Written words have been my way of communicating my feelings, unseen, to people close to me whom I’ve not been able to visit on the days when they’ve been in hospital. They’ve helped me to work through lingering frustrations from long ago that have resurfaced during sleepless nights. They’ve been a secret outlet for the things that don’t feel like they can be spoken about. They’ve healed, they’ve served, and some of them have given me a handful of poems that are now being edited ready for submission.

And these poems would never have surfaced had I not just gone with the writing, purely for the sake of the process.

There’s more to writing than just words prettily arranged on the page – just as there’s more to music than notes and lyrics strung together in a pleasing order. There’s power and healing in the process, both for the ones creating the work and the ones reading/watching/listening. The arts, surely, are now more vital than ever.

Whatever you can create that makes you feel good, even if it’s not perfect, go and create it. Embrace the fact that the creative process is messy, unpredictable, never meant to be perfect, but often wonderfully surprising.

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