Why perfectionism kills creativity… and one small way to avoid it

At Brain Pickings, one of my favorite blogs, Maria Popova has an excellent post about Anne Lamott’s advice from her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Popova, summarizing Lamott, says that in writing,

“there is no room for perfectionism. (Neil Gaiman famously advised, ‘Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.’, and David Foster Wallace admonished, ‘If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.’) Lamott cautions: ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft… Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.’”

I’m old enough that when I first started writing as a teenager I did so longhand, then typed up finished copy on a portable manual typewriter… ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunk DING! (Granted, this was obsolete technology even at the time.) Before long I was typing up papers on an Apple IIe, and soon began editing my work as I went. And from there it was only a short step to composing on the keyboard, which is what I’m doing now. It’s so nice — you can revise as you go and don’t have to wait for a clean copy.

But that’s also the problem. Sometimes I get so fussy that a draft grinds to a halt because I’m trying to get it right before I move on. The solution? Sometimes when I get stuck I go back to longhand on a yellow tablet. That makes it difficult to edit. So you have to keep moving, fix it later.

College ruined my formerly semi-neat handwriting, and there’s something about those sloppy written words on the page that makes it OK for the draft to suck, as drafts tend to do. It feels like I’m taking notes again in some lecture hall, and in a way I am. I’m taking notes on what I’m going to write, and that sure takes the pressure off. I don’t use this method all the time, but it’s there when I need it.


4 thoughts on “Why perfectionism kills creativity… and one small way to avoid it

  1. Ghi

    Longhand is for excellent people. Typewriting is for the perfect ones. It is far more difficult perfect than excellent. This means, excellence is a [more] humane — doable.


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