Why perfectionism is more of a threat to creativity than almost anything else.

Why perfectionism is more of a threat to creativity than almost anything else.

I’m often saddened by the carping, the petty and the pedantic more than I am by other things because they seem to single out a tiny blemish and declare an entire face ugly. I’m not among those who believe a few typos in a book render the whole thing worthless, and it’s taken me a long while to get past that fear that says unless my appearance is perfect I don’t deserve any sort of a life. I grew up with a belief that I’d never be pretty if I didn’t lose weight and get rid of my acne. It’s taken till my mid forties to leave the acne behind and the weight seems to be a part of me now. But I’ve started to shed the belief that everything needs to be perfect for the whole to be worthwhile.
There’s a continuous battle currently raging, between those who think that less-than-perfect books by independent self-published authors are ruining the market for those who strive to turn out polished manuscripts edited to the nth degree, encased in professional and eye catching covers, and with those who think that it really doesn’t matter if there are crap books on sale. Some have declared that sub-par books are the greatest of threats to any author serious about their work.
This last week, I came up against my own neurosis about needing things to be perfect. I bought myself two rather wonderful colouring books, as a part of a kind of therapy for myself, a de-stressing hobby that has become a huge thing among French women. I even joined the Facebook group. But the books were simply too lovely, too exquisite and too good for me and I had a sudden dip into misery because I couldn’t bear to set pen to paper and potentially ruin them.
A lot of writers obsess and rewrite paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter, seldom if ever completing a draft. Those who do complete a draft then spend years rewriting and rewriting and never quite come to the point that you HAVE to come to: this is done, this is enough. There’s something to be said for rewriting; it can be when you find your way past the chaos in your own head to what the story needs to say, but the endless polishing, the shifting of sentences here and there, becomes a form of procrastination. It puts off the horrible moment when you need to say, “It is finished.” No book is ever truly finished with and completed; there is always more you could do. Yet to become a book rather than a work continuously in progress, it’s vital that you stop and step away and let it alone to fly into the hearts of readers.
If you’ve ever painted, there’s a pivotal moment when you know that if you add any more paint to a canvas, you will destroy the picture. The same is true about books; there’s a point at which any more fiddling (whether adding or removing words) is going to annihilate what you have created. Seeking to write “the perfect novel” is never going to happen because most of the skills needed to create something that powerful are employed unconsciously and in spite of the author’s own agendas.
That’s what’s been so pleasant about the colouring books. Once I got past the “oh they’re too nice for me to spoil,” fear, it became a matter of relaxation. There is no great personal weight of expectation of creation involved. I am applying colour in a personal way to a work of art someone else created for me to PLAY with and enjoy. It doesn’t need to be perfect when it’s finished because the only person who sees if completed is me (and anyone I show it to) and as much as anything, it’s been the process of creating that has been important, not the finished product. It takes a great burden off the person colouring; if you make a mess of it, you can start again with another picture, or if you ruin the whole book, you can buy another and try again. There’s no great inherent creativity involved yet the process surely inspires creativity.

11 thoughts on “Why perfectionism is more of a threat to creativity than almost anything else.

  1. The colouring book thing sounds like a great idea! As for the perfecting of a novel, I think it’s a good idea to give your novel/story that last re-write, and then perhaps another one (I always give mine another going over when I get them back from the proofreader, as it’s been away for a week or so and I can see it ‘fresh’!), but yes, I think you’re right, you need to get to the point where you think, right, it’s as good as I can make it, now. Publish and be damned!


  2. I get round the perfectionism neurosis by never rereading or rewriting anything until I’ve finished the first draft. The writing of the first draft is the most creative part of writing, I think, and perfectionism kills it. I also think too much rewriting and obsessing over whether a script is ‘good enough’ can lead to flat and lifeless writing. Knowing when to stop is crucial!


    • Yeah. “The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go,” applies very much to writing too. I agree wholeheartedly; I’ve read a good deal of over polished fiction over the years that has had the individuality and voice sandpapered out of it.


  3. A few typos in a book do not render it worthless. A few typos in every chapter definitely mars it, however. And constant errors makes it worse than worthless, because it reflects on all of us who do strive for perfection.

    Acne and overweight, of course, are beside the point. We are all of worth,


    • By the logic you use, though, everyone with acne and excess weight reflects badly on everyone else who keeps svelte and smooth skinned. I’m not sure that everyone is of worth when certain criteria are used.


      • Nonsense. One cannot do a great deal about appearance, and from my experience, the svelte and smooth skinned like it that others are not the same. But if you make a book that is for sale, you owe it to yourself and to everyone else to make it the very best that you can.


  4. Pingback: Sunday Surprise | creative barbwire (or the many lives of a creator)

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