The Writer’s Relentless Quest for Imperfection

“All along the way, Hans Christian Andersen kept writing.” The world paid a lot of attention to HCA last year, and the bicentennial celebrations of his birth ended on December 6. And the above bit of homely wisdom for the would-be writers of the world jumped out of my radio today. The commentator had been talking about the trials, his loneliness and sexual ambivalence, but returned to emphasize the following essential and enduring facts about Andersen’s life: we know about the fairy tales (though I hadn’t realized there were over 200 of ‘em!), but there were also 4 autobiographies, assorted travelogues, more than 1000 poems and 62 novels. Makes me feel like I should go out and buy a brand new pickup. Maybe an Escalade. (That was a witty aside about overcompensation for my inadequacy. Literary inadequacy, I mean.)

And so I’m thinking about what slows me down, keeps me running from the inkwell. Helping me do that is a terrific workbook called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. (Think I’ve mentioned this before. Well worth looking into if you’re interested in creativity and personal growth of any kind; she happens to be a professional (and an elegant) writer, but it’s about any art, any opening of the spirit.) And here’s what she has to say about perfectionism, one of my prowling, growling dogs of war:

Perfectionism has nothing to do with ‘getting it right’….It has nothing to do with ‘having standards’. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop – an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole….To the perfectionist, there is always room for improvement. The perfectionist calls this humility. In reality, it is egotism.

I think she nailed it. Addiction to perfection is rooted in self-absorption and, Cameron goes on to say that, far from being a “quest for the best”, it can reflect one’s constant sifting of what is one of the world’s worst feelings: that nothing I do is ever good enough. Good enough for whom? Why? So screw that. Embrace imperfection! Uncertainty is life! (Exclamation marks are fun!)

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