Misguided perfectionism – on trusting the process

For many years, I have resisted to let others critique my work. I have shown things I have written to people, but I was very strategic about it. The texts went to readers who I knew loved my style but who are, first and foremost, uncritical in their reading. It was great for my ego and bad for my writing.

It took me a long time to understand, why I did that. Was it purely an ego thing?

Yes. It was.

But maybe not the way you would think.

My biggest fear was getting it wrong.

I am a perfectionist in most things. I wanted the ideas that spring from my brain onto paper to be as good as they possibly could. Despite knowing the old adage of every first draft being shit, I expected myself to come up with ideas, characters and concepts that were brilliant from the get go.

It prevented me from going back to my work and make necessary adjustments. It resulted in stories that were less than they could have been. I often felt that, but couldn’t admit it to myself or anyone else. I needed to prove to myself that I could get it right. And getting right meant getting it right from the start.

No going back. No second tries. No failure.

This of course, made handing my work to critical readers impossible. They would have spotted weaknesses, asked questions, and it would have destroyed my carefully crafted yet already fragile equilibrium.

While the fear of not being good enough to master their chosen field is something every artist experiences, the core of the problem here is something entirely different.

I confused the process with the result.

Striving for the best possible result in your art should be a natural desire. (Well, at some point you should let your work go, but that is a post for another day). Perfecting yourself in your craft to the best of your abilities should be something that you strive for.

But the process? Man. The process is messy. Making art is messy.

By definition, according to Websters Dictionary, art is “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects”.

Have a good look at the words “conscious use of skill” and “production”.

The conception of an idea is not really concious. Something springs to mind and there it sits, sending pink fluffy plot bunnies with sharp teeth after you. (What do you mean, you don ‘t get those?)

The concious use of skill starts when you decide to pick the bunny up. Production sets in when you take your toolbox and start to hammer away at a cage for it. (A pretty cage, mind you. With dragons. Err… princesses.)

You have your idea, maybe even a plan, you have your tools and you (ideally) know what the endresult is supposed to be. That’s about the point when neat and straightforward actions end. From the image in your mind to the finished project, things go wrong, ideas prove unworkable, expectations change.

It’s natural. It’s not a failure. You are doing okay.

My biggest obstacle was that once my idea was out there, once I had talked with someone about it, I felt like  I had commited to it and that it had to remain largely the same. Because that’s what I said I’d do, right? (Anyone else got told too often as a kid that they “never stick with anything?” … yeah.)

Don’t shackle yourself like that.

Your idea is just the starting point of your journey. Reframe how you talk about it in your head and with others if you must. Refer to it as what it is – an idea, a plotpoint, a possible arc – a work in process.

We grow with our projects. We get deeper into the plot, learn more about the characters and it is friggin natural that you can’t know everything about them when you set out to meet them!

Why it took me forever to understand this is beyond me, and yet it did.

There is one other thing that turns marrying yourself to your innitial idea into a dangerous path to take.

First ideas are never the best. Never. The concept could be great but the execution, if it’s done on the very first whim, won’t be as good as it could be. First ideas are easy. They are familiar. They have usually been done a million times before.

Looking at your project from all angles, asking it hard questions will take time. It might turn it into something else entirely but it will also tease out any hidden potential.

So trust the process. Let it be messy.  Keep your perfectionism, but make it about your process. Find out how you work best. How you can maximize your creative potential.

Set high standards for your results, not your beginnings. 




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