Artist’s Way Week 7: The Curse of Perfectionism

May 26, 2023 | Blog

The reading in the opening of this week felt incredibly relevant to me. As I turned each page I was thinking ‘yes. that’s me, I do that all the time!’ in a way I perhaps haven’t had with other weeks. The three main ideas that came up were perfectionism, taking risks and jealousy. Do any of these sound familiar? Perfectionism raises its head in lots of ways in my life. I remember back in my teaching days when I would spend hours meticulously planning an observed lesson, losing sleep, time and sanity in pursuit of the most detailed lesson plan imaginable. Did it make my teaching any better? Probably not. I also seem to have spent my life working in areas where it is never really possible to say ‘oh, that’s finished,’ which I’m sure doesn’t help. When exactly is my story finished? How do I know my kids have made the most progress? How many more excerpts or exercises should I use in my workshops? All of it is highly subjective, which leaves my perfectionist brain looping over and over. Now, I have made some progress here. At least one of my books is finished and published. There are a lot of short stories in the world with my name on it. Which is brilliant. But it’s remarkable how easy it is to fall into the trap of ‘this isn’t good enough,’ despite any previous successes. There are a couple of ideas that really stood out to me. The first was this: “Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough – that we should try again.” I think, very often, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we just want things to be good, or that we’re trying to improve, or any other lie that keeps us mulling over and over our idea rather than turning it into story. That keeps us fiddling and dithering with draft after draft instead of just sending something out. That keeps us staring out of the window and imagining the wonderful art we would create – instead of trying to make it and realising that it’s not quite as brilliant as it was in our heads.

My five-year-old’s visions don’t always work out as she’d hoped. But she keeps trying.

  I see this all the time with my daughter. Yesterday it was a juice machine/shop, where we could try different drinks for our dessert. There’s also been a bakery, a school, a pulley system to deliver snacks to her while she ‘works’ at my desk. Heartbreakingly, all of her schemes never quite turn out as perfectly as I’m sure she sees them in her head, yet she still comes up to me and says, ‘Mummy, let’s make something marvellous.’ I think we could all do with that kind of persistent enthusiasm. The other relates to something that came up in my workshop – how do you stop tinkering and let something go? Paul Gardner said “A painting is never finished. It simply stops in interesting places.” I like this idea. Of course I could obsessively fiddle with every poem, story or book, but then it would only ever live on my computer, and how would it breathe then? Art can only really find its space in the real world, with a real audience, so it seems a shame to deny it that chance.

Someone else’s brilliance doesn’t have to eclipse your own

  Scudding alongside perfectionism is the scary notion of taking risks. A brilliant sentence starter that we’re given here is “if I didn’t have to do it perfectly I would try…” Her examples include wearing red lipstick and water ballet, while mine had stand-up comedy, writing poetry and drumming (I had a plastic drum kit when I was 6). What would be on your list? It’s a wonderfully freeing thought, to dismantle ideas of doing things ‘right’ and then just doing them anyway. I can’t say it’s going to be an easy one to dislodge, but for the moment I’ve at least widened my pitch pool to include publications I maybe hadn’t considered before, and opened up my risky dreaming to include hosting my own writing retreat and polishing up that non-fiction proposal to send into the world because why not? For me, perfectionism is tied in very closely with jealousy. It feels like, whenever I go on social media, someone is celebrating their publication/book deal/nobel prize with lots of smiley faces. I would love to offer them unreserved congratulations and good wishes, but there is always a little, grubby part of me that grumbles away underneath. A foot-stamping toddler that says ‘why isn’t it me?’ and then goes and sulks in a corner and refuses to write anything new for the rest of the week.

The collage is so much fun, and I was surprised by what ‘jumped out’ at me

  What I made this week which allowed me to use my jealousy for good was a jealousy map. Once I’ve identified who I’m jealous of, and why, I need to identify an ‘Action Antidote.’ This way, I can transfer my stingy ideas (after all, jealousy assumes that because someone else is doing it, you can’t) into a positive action. I can’t guarantee it’s going to make me completely stop sighing over the successes of others, but it’s a start. The activities this week focused on indulgence, on the idea that it might not be too late to achieve all those ‘missed’ dreams you have. It also involved cutting stuff up and making a collage, which was enormous fun! The massive sparkly boots and purply sunsets were not a surprise, although I was interested to see how many wolffish faces made it into this collage. Who knows what that signifies. This week really uncovered a lot of the barriers and twists and turns I lay in my own path when it comes to creating things. I certainly hope that it will help to free me up in terms of taking risks, trying things out and being far more open to the idea that, if I listen hard enough, beautiful things are just waiting to pour from my fingers.


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