This week’s Creative Writing at The EDGE guest blog by Munizha explores perfectionism in her writing practice.
Munizha prefaces her piece with a quote from American poet Sharon Olds:
“I was very afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do this job well. And the time never came back.”
In my younger, more arrogant days, with time on my side, I paraded my perfectionism. It helped me justify the maddening procrastination and sporadic productivity that characterised, among other things, what I wanted to do most – writing. Since childhood, I had been told that I was a ‘good’ writer. Indeed, the only Brownie badges I went for were reading and writing, so I limited my options at a young age. And, the occasional poems and articles I did come to write were usually well-received. But, rather than using this to build my confidence, I was more inclined to feed it into my perfectionist fear of failure. I constantly put off committing to writing, deluding myself that when I did finally sit down to produce something substantial – at some undefined point in the future – it would, of course, be perfect.
It doesn’t work that way. While I was right in my subconscious belief that the less I wrote, the less I risked being exposed as a ‘bad’ writer, it also meant that I wasn’t a writer at all. Now, in the existential panic of middle age, the clock of mortality ticking louder each day, my pages still wait to be filled. If I don’t get on with it now, it may never get done. And the regrettable waste of not doing something you love because you are afraid of doing it badly dawns on me more intensely each day. The excuses sound increasingly hollow – it is time to hold each one to account.
How debilitating and destructive perfectionism can be hit home when I read the following passage in Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote, a mind-shifting critique of the culture of ‘positive thinking’:
Perfectionism is one of those traits that many people seem secretly, or not-so-secretly, proud to possess, since it hardly seems like a character flaw. Yet, at bottom, it is a fear-driven striving to avoid the experience of failure at all costs. At the extremes, it is an exhausting and permanently stressful way to live: there is a greater correlation between perfectionism and suicide, researchers have found, than between feelings of hopelessness and suicide.
Other useful resources that have helped me realise that perfectionism is not indelibly coded in my genes, but can be addressed and managed, are Anne Lamott’s no-nonsense writing advice in Bird by Bird, especially the chapter ‘Shitty First Drafts’; ‘The Curse of Perfectionism’, an episode of the Go Deeper Podcast, which particularly resonates with me because it is hosted by two middle-aged women, like myself, openly reflecting on what holds us back and motivates us in life; and the iprocrastinate Podcast (discovered while I was procrastinating), which discusses psychological research into different aspects of procrastination, and focuses several episodes on its entwinement with perfectionism.
Importantly, I have learnt that while perfectionism carries huge risks of not doing anything at all, or feeling like a constant failure because your standards are impossibly high, you can still healthily strive for excellence. But you need to accept that this journey involves not always knowing where you’re going, the frustration of wrong turns, and the occasional trauma of a crash. The more you keep going, and the better you try, the more likely you are to reach a place you value.
And anyway, isn’t perfection in the eye of the beholder? Although we are constantly bombarded with highly selective images and ideas of ‘perfection’ and ‘success’ – the perfect body, home, lifestyle, career, car, family, holiday, phone, and even eyelashes – what truly moves and inspires us is uniquely, and beautifully, personal. When it comes to creative work, everyone has their perfect painting, book, song, poem, dish or performance, which are no less valuable if they don’t achieve the fame and fortune we are taught to desire from such a young age. All we can do is contribute our own droplet to that abundant sea of expression.
So, I am training myself, and using this writing workshop to practise my writing – allowing myself to get things ‘wrong’ so that I at least have something to make better. As long as I deal with my fear of that ‘shitty first draft’ and don’t strangle my ideas at birth because they don’t measure up, something I write may speak to someone in a certain place at a particular moment. It may, in that instant, even appear to be perfect.
Whatever the outcome, I will have spent my time embracing and nurturing, rather than discontentedly shunning, the thing I love.
About the author
Munizha Ahmad-Cooke has published poems in Oxford Poetry and In Love (Leaf publications). She has written book reviews for South Asia Research, SOAS Bulletin, and articles for South Asian Cinema and Ph7, a parliamentary health magazine. She grew up in Harrow, north-west London, and has worked in academia, publishing, politics and the charity sector. Today, she is a freelance copywriter and editor, nesting in the greenery of South Cambs, hunting words.
This course is supported by Cambridge City Council, The Edge Cafe and Oblique Arts