Overcoming One of Writing’s Greatest Blocks–Other People’s Expectations

Creatively Screwed

When I was young and first started letting others read my creative writing, I ended up with a lot of pushback from my parents and other adults that I was supposed to trust.  I would hear, “Oh, you shouldn’t use those words,” or “That’s not lady-like Michelle.”  The whole point of the criticisms, even when I was writing truths, albeit sometimes painful truths, was to tell me that my point of view—my words, my world—wasn’t valid.  That somehow my life experiences were things that shouldn’t be written about.  And during those times, I wrote about some incredibly painful things.  I didn’t really understand that those who were telling me that I shouldn’t write about those things were really concerned for themselves and how they might be perceived through my work rather than how I might be perceived.  In other words, it wasn’t about me at all—it was about them.

It has taken me an age to shake off those expectations and I still struggle with them from time-to-time, but I understand better now.  I know those expectations are not at all about me, but about them.  Just because I don’t fit into someone’s narrow view of who they want me to be, does not make it my problem.  It makes it their problem.  It took someone emotionally and mentally battering me to really see these poisonous expectations clearly and how they were not only stunting my growth as a writer, but also as a human being.

My father’s passing helped with that too.  He had expectations, of course.  All parents do.  Sometimes they think they are supporting us, but their expectations mold us into something they want us to be instead of letting us be ourselves.  I don’t think they always realize that they are doing it.  They are often fighting their own demons when they try to shape us.  My father certainly was.  He grew up in severe urban poverty with an absent father and a single mother who’d have to hock the radio every month to make the rent.  I think the reason he had fond memories of his childhood during WWII was because that was when his mother had a good job working in a factory making a decent wage.  She lost that, of course, when the men came home from the front and took their jobs back. 

My father’s childhood was a constant struggle for money, and having a father (my grandfather) who was an artist (and a drunk) meant that artist in you was not something to be embraced, but hidden and overcome.  If you had a creative side, you suppressed it.  You got a decent job and worked your way up to management through the ranks (you could do that in his time—not so much anymore) and you were afforded The American Dream.  You could buy a house, support a family, send your kids to school, have extra money to save for travel and retirement, and you could do it all without needing a high school diploma (my father joined the Navy at 17 and got a GED during his enlistment).

Dad wanted the same dream for me, but with a college degree.  It didn’t matter if my dreams were different.  I don’t think he ever understood how much the world had changed.  He lived in the past and I’m doing my best to live mindfully in the now.

I’ve always had this incredible desire to be myself.  I didn’t realize how rare a thing this was.  So many people want to be someone else.  In high school, I was at a party where a guy I barely knew was running around drunkenly asking everyone,  “If you could be anyone in the world, living or dead, who would you be?”  People were mostly answering celebrities or sport stars.  I didn’t hesitate; I said I wanted to be myself.  I’d had a few drinks and it was a completely honest, spontaneous answer.  I shocked the guy.  He stared at me in silence for a few minutes then hopped from sofa to chair in his bare feet and shouted my answer to everyone at the party.  At the time, I didn’t think it was a remarkable response, but this inebriated guy thought I’d said the most profound thing he’d ever heard and wanted to get to know me better because of it.  My answer made me interesting.

I’ve never wanted to be anything other than what I am.  I tried to reach the expectations of others because I wanted to please them and wanted them to be proud of me.  What I’ve learned along this journey is that expectations are impossible targets because they are always moving.  And when you release an arrow from your bow and it’s heading straight for the bullseye and you think you’re finally going to meet those expectations, the target jumps aside and you miss it completely.  I’m sure I repeated that shot a thousand times before finally understanding that the game is rigged.  You’ll never hit the target so you might as well be yourself.

Learning that lesson was a breakthrough for me in overcoming my biggest block in writing and in life.  


Throwback Thursday–Infrared Bed

Infrared Bed

I had an assignment during a creative photography class that gave a few specific parameters. The assignment was to do a photographic series using infrared film that could be titled, “Infrared Bed”. This is the first photograph from that series.  The truck bed is linked with camping gear in preparation for a journey.


Throwback Thursday — Iced Tree


Another in the series of photos from film that I post on Thursdays.  With the ice and snow storms in the mid-Atlantic this week, I thought this photograph was appropriate.  It was taken in Shenandoah National Park on Halloween many years ago. The ice only formed in the higher elevations and driving was a bit nerve wracking through those parts of Skyline Drive.  I love the black, white, and red in this image.

Throwback Thursday–Ice Archer

International Ice Carving Competition, Anchorage, Alaska, 1997

International Ice Carving Competition, Anchorage, Alaska, 1997

Throwback Thursday — Weeds, Water, and Clouds

Water, Reeds, and Clouds

When I took photography classes, my professor really liked this image. I used to ask him what made this a good photo. Most of the time I know what makes a good photo, but this one stumped me. I finally settled on the light to dark gradient in the image and how the reflection of clouds at the top almost becomes clouds for the branches in the water and they, in turn, become trees. What do you think? What makes a photograph good?

Throwback Thursday — Silent Sailboats

Silent Sailboats

And the reflections continue… This was a long-ago project that I did on night photography and this is one of my favorite images from that series. It was taken in Havre de Grace, Maryland.


Throwback Thursday – Fell’s Point Tugboats

When I worked in an office the bordered the Broadway Pier in Fells Point, I looked at my window at these tugboats every day. Sometimes you'd see scenes from "Homicide: Life on the Streets" shooting in front of the building on the left in the image as it served as the facade for the police station in the show.

When I worked in an office that bordered the Broadway Pier in Fells Point, I looked out my window at these tugboats every day. Sometimes you’d see scenes from Homicide: Life on the Street shooting in front of the building on the left as it served as the facade for the police station in the show.

Throwback Thursday – Alien Reflection

Can you find the alien face in the photo? This image was shot on black and white film with a Canon AE-1 that was older than me. Damn, I loved that camera.

Can you find the alien face in the photo?  This was shot at Miami Beach, Maryland (definitely not Florida), on black and white film with a Canon AE-1 that was older than me. Damn, I loved shooting with that camera!

Paralyzed by Perfection

Mom and Dad

A not-so-perfect, but favorite photo of my mother and father.

Last night I was having a conversation with my mother about what we’d both been up to in the past week.  She often tells me of her bridge games, if she won any master points, and what she’s been doing with the other snow birds in the Daytona Beach campground where she escapes the cold winter.  (It’s Bike Week so I got to hear about old men trying to recapture their youth by tooling around on really expensive motorcycles [in leathers that should probably be altered to fit better] and chasing girls a third of their age.)  She also tells me about books that she’s reading or has in her waiting-to-be-read pile.

So I start telling her about one of the books I’m reading, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown.  In an effort to reclaim my creativity, I’ve been working through a process where I attempt to abandon perfectionism in my writing and I thought this book would be helpful.  I tell my mother, the ultimate perfectionist, that maybe she would like this book too because I’m really enjoying it and finding it insightful.  What did my mother say?

Mom: I’m not a perfectionist!
Me: Yes you are. You’ve admitted it to me numerous times. You can’t go back and deny it now.
Mom (now flustered): I’m not a perfectionist!
Me: What about the yard…the house??? I think you’d like the book. I think it’d be good for you.
(silence…then in true Mom fashion…she changed the subject)

I am, by no means, perfect.  I’ve always known this because, despite my mother’s insistence, I grew up with perfectionist parents.  If you were ever in my shoes, you’d know that you can never do or be enough for a perfectionist parent.  It’s a tough situation for a child who, for the longest time, would do almost anything to get a gold star in living from her parents.

When I say my father and mother were/are perfectionists, I want you to understand that their perfectionism extended to everything they touched. There could never be a dish or a drop of water left in the sink. (Let me tell you–the first time I moved out on my own I piled all of my dishes in the sink just because I could.)  I spent countless hours of my childhood in the blaring heat of the summer sun picking up tiny sticks in a 3.5 acre yard with a pair of fireplace tongs. (To this day I think the tendonitis problems in my hands started with those damn heavy iron tongs.)  One summer my mother spent weeks bleaching the patio bricks, which already looked perfect.  (I hate to even think what that did to the groundwater or septic system, but there was no stopping her).  Yes, my mother would vacuum a forest if she could–Mother Nature be damned.

Now, when I finally abandoned any attempt at getting a gold star for obsessive cleanliness or back-breaking, pointless yard labor, I didn’t abandon perfectionism in my writing or creative work.  I also didn’t recognize it as perfectionism until much later in my life.  I could, like Oscar Wilde said, spend “all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.”  Editing froze my writing process.  I became paralyzed by perfection.

I turned to other creative pursuits because often when I feel blocked in one creative area of my life, being creative in another area tends to help break the block.  Thankfully, I am at no loss when it comes to the types of creative endeavors that I love.  I studied photography, which is a fabulous companion to writing (I’m thinking of photographer/writers like Walker Evans here…).  I designed jewelry, made hats, painted, crafted masks, but in the end my creative perfectionism reared it’s ugly head again.

I was commissioned to make a fascinator by a friend who was going to a fancy event and wanted something special to go with her dress.  I was excited by the commission and the possibility of making something to enhance an experience for someone I cared about.  Things didn’t go so well though.  I ended up making three hats before I was satisfied.  The first one resembled a stargazer lily, but I just wasn’t happy with it and I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why.  I turned to an artist friend for advice.  Her response–“It’s too perfect.  Nothing in nature is that perfect.”

I had once again lost my self in perfection.

In an effort to cure the problem of perfection in my writing (and in other areas of my creative life), I started stream-of-consciousness journaling almost daily.  I don’t allow myself to go back and edit anything–a misspelled word, punctuation or lack thereof, etc.  I just write and I’ve learned not to care about how the words spill out on the page.  I’ve found that when I try to craft something that requires editing, that I obsess less over Oscar Wilde’s comma.  After all, this piece on perfectionism got written, so something must be working!

So now, when I’m at a place where I am obsessing overly much about a detail, I take a deep breath and repeat to myself, “Nothing in nature is that perfect.”  Then I move on, whether my innate perfectionist wants to or not.