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.