Nobody’s Perfect! Or, The Case of the Ugly Duckling

Perfection? Not even this.

Over at The Artist’s Road, Patrick Ross has a great post today (May 18) entitled “Does Insecurity Drive Creativity”? He started me thinking about perfectionism: a driving force? Or a recipe for failure?

Born a “Pleaser”

I’m not sure where the trait comes from, but I’ve always been a “pleaser.” When I was little, whenever I was disobedient, my mother wielded the switch (for those of you who aren’t Southern, that’s a small branch or twig, not an electrical device), but all my dad had to do was look at me—a look that conveyed his disappointment—and I would crumble in shame and remorse. I had failed to live up to expectations. My growing-up faith played a part in it, too; if I misbehaved, God wouldn’t be happy with me, either. The report card with straight A’s, the flawless piano performance, the honors and awards at school affirmed I was a person worthy of love and acceptance. It was never said; just understood. Later, it was marrying the “right” boy, having children who also measured up, being the “best” teacher. Affirmation was a deep need, and sometimes, it still is.

Recipe for Failure

Perfectionism’s twin is self-doubt. If I set impossible goals for myself—substitute “my writing” here—how will I ever measure up? I’ll never be good enough at what I do to risk putting it “out there,” which is absolutely necessary to succeed. Those countless times I read over a manuscript before I submit it—fiddling with it, putting a word in here, taking a word out there (sometimes the same word), even after major revision is done—are signs of self-doubt that must be overcome if I’m going to succeed on any level.

Granted, none of us should ever throw a story out there without careful thought and attention both to what’s working and to what’s flawed (and that includes a careful proofreading). But obsessing over it and trying to make a “perfect” product will most certainly undermine us. At some point, we have to let the work go. We have to take chances. Hopefully, the successes will come, and we’ll learn from the rejections.

Growing Pains

At some point, too, it’s necessary to give the work over to others whom we trust to bring to it a different context of knowledge of craft and insights. When we do that, we have to be prepared for criticism.

Having my work critiqued has generally been a positive experience, and I value it highly. I had a fine writer/workshop leader tell me once, though, in a private moment outside of the workshop, that I was a terrific writer, but I needed to be more confident. Duh, I thought. But she was right. I never want to be blindly confident in my work. That’s a recipe for disaster, too. But I want to strike a balance between knowing something is good and being open to criticism that might make it better.

Liken the process to Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, “The Ugly Duckling.” That hatchling was an odd bird indeed among the “normal” ducklings. The mother duck looked after him, she defended him, but the cruelty of others led him out into the world time and time again, where he continued to be rejected until he found his proper place: among beautiful swans. Lucky little guy; his growth process was genetically engineered. He wouldn’t stay ugly forever, but he had to get to the beauty not only through the process of growth but also through hardship.

None of us wants to be the brunt of cruel criticism. That has no place in a productive writing community. At its best, feedback nurtures us and nudges us toward better work.

Let’s let go of perfectionism. Let’s not be too hard on ourselves. Let’s choose confidence  over destructive, bottom-skimming self-doubt. Let’s seek out and build a community of readers and writers who know how to be kind and supportive, yet can deliver the kind of insightful help we need.

Is perfectionism a hindrance to your growth as a writer? If so, what strategies do you use to overcome it? I welcome your comments!

8 thoughts on “Nobody’s Perfect! Or, The Case of the Ugly Duckling

  1. I’m my own worse critic. I’m like you in that I just have to “let go” and hit publish because I will keep finding things to change. I’m working hard on having more confidence, but it’s difficult when you know you could do better.

    1. Dana, as I just responded to E.B.: I think we grow into confidence. With every piece–story, memoir, poem, or even blog entry–hopefully, we learn, and we get better. Some of that comes, as I said in this post, with finding good readers who give us honest but helpful feedback.

  2. I am rarely satisfied with anything that I write, but blogging is teaching me to finally let go and hit “publish.” (And then I often go back in and “edit”…)

    1. Neither am I, and when I am, it generally means I’m not hard ENOUGH on myself! You’re right about the blogging. Even though we want a nicely edited, well-written product, it loosens us up a little. Thanks, bonniej77.

  3. Gerry, I’m moved that my post today triggered such a thoughtful and heartfelt post from you!

    So much of what you write about here resonates with me, especially the part about never really being done. I read once that Joan Didion–a writer I find myself emulating in my non-fiction–doesn’t send a manuscript to her publisher until every single word has been critiqued. Well, how can I ever meet that standard? (Okay, now I’m evoking the envy/insecurity of my post, perhaps!)

    I’m so glad someone passed on that word of wisdom to you after a workshop, and that you were open to listening to it and processing it. I wonder if that person realizes the impression they made that day.

    1. Patrick, I’m really not sure we’re ever done! I could go on tweaking forever, even a blog post. I think we develop a sense of when it’s time to let go. I *do* pay attention to rejections, whether I receive comments or not. They make me return to the piece and try to figure out what I might do differently to make it stronger.

      As for the workshop comment: I already knew that about myself, but hearing it from someone else was an eye-opener. I took notice.

      Thanks for your insightful comments!

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