Chapter 4 - PERSISTENCE
Fear in High Heels
I was once in love with a gifted young man— somebody who I thought was a far more talented writer than me— who decided in his twenties that he would not bother trying to be a writer after all, because the work never came out on the page quite as exquisitely as it lived in his head. He found it all too frustrating. He didn’t want to sully the dazzling ideal that existed in his mind by putting a clumsy rendition of it down on paper.
While I beavered away at my awkward, disappointing short stories, this brilliant young man refused to write a word. He even tried to make me feel ashamed that I was attempting to write: Did the dreadful results not pain and offend me? He possessed a more pristine sense of artistic discernment, was the implication. Exposure to imperfections— even his own— injured his soul. He felt there was nobility in his choice never to write a book, if it could not be a great book. He said, “I would rather be a beautiful failure than a deficient success.” Hell, I wouldn’t.
The image of the tragic artist who lays down his tools rather than fall short of his impeccable ideals holds no romance for me. I don’t see this path as heroic. I think it’s far more honorable to stay in the game— even if you’re objectively failing at the game— than to excuse yourself from participation because of your delicate sensibilities. But in order to stay in the game, you must let go of your fantasy of perfection. So let’s talk for a moment about perfection.
The great American novelist Robert Stone once joked that he possessed the two worst qualities imaginable in a writer: He was lazy, and he was a perfectionist. Indeed, those are the essential ingredients for torpor and misery, right there. If you want to live a contented creative life, you do not want to cultivate either one of those traits, trust me. What you want is to cultivate quite the opposite: You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass. It starts by forgetting about perfect.
We don’t have time for perfect. In any event, perfection is unachievable: It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death. The writer Rebecca Solnit puts it well: “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.” Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes— but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even bother trying to be creative in the first place.
The most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as a virtue. In job interviews, for instance, people will sometimes advertise their perfectionism as if it’s their greatest selling point— taking pride in the very thing that is holding them back from enjoying their fullest possible engagement with creative living. They wear their perfectionism like a badge of honor, as if it signals high tastes and exquisite standards. But I see it differently. I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.”
Perfectionism is a particularly evil lure for women, who, I believe, hold themselves to an even higher standard of performance than do men. There are many reasons why women’s voices and visions are not more widely represented today in creative fields. Some of that exclusion is due to regular old misogyny, but it’s also true that— all too often— women are the ones holding themselves back from participating in the first place. Holding back their ideas, holding back their contributions, holding back their leadership and their talents.
Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism. Meanwhile, putting forth work that is far from perfect rarely stops men from participating in the global cultural conversation. Just sayin’. And I don’t say this as a criticism of men, by the way. I like that feature in men— their absurd overconfidence, the way they will casually decide, “Well, I’m 41 percent qualified for this task, so give me the job!” Yes, sometimes the results are ridiculous and disastrous, but sometimes, strangely enough, it works— a man who seems not ready for the task, not good enough for the task, somehow grows immediately into his potential through the wild leap of faith itself. I only wish more women would risk these same kinds of wild leaps. But I’ve watched too many women do the opposite. I’ve watched far too many brilliant and gifted female creators say, “I am 99.8 percent qualified for this task, but until I master that last smidgen of ability, I will hold myself back, just to be on the safe side.”
Now, I cannot imagine where women ever got the idea that they must be perfect in order to be loved or successful. (Ha ha ha! Just kidding! I can totally imagine: We got it from every single message society has ever sent us! Thanks, all of human history!) But we women must break this habit in ourselves— and we are the only ones who can break it. We must understand that the drive for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism.
No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it. (There are people out there who still consider Beethoven’s symphonies a little bit too, you know, loud.) At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is— if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart. Which is the entire point. Or should be.
Marcus Aurelius Chimes In
I’ve long been inspired by the private diaries of the second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. The wise philosopher-king never intended that his meditations be published, but I’m grateful that they were. I find it encouraging to watch this brilliant man, two thousand years ago, trying to keep up his motivation to be creative and brave and searching. His frustrations and his self-cajoling sound amazingly contemporary (or maybe just eternal and universal). You can hear him working through all the same questions that we all must work through in our lives: Why am I here? What have I been called to do? How am I getting in my own way? How can I best live out my destiny?
I especially love watching Marcus Aurelius fighting his perfectionism in order to get back to work on his writing, regardless of the results. “Do what nature demands,” he writes to himself. “Get a move on— if you have it in you— and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.” Please tell me I’m not the only one who finds it endearing and encouraging that a legendary Roman philosopher had to reassure himself that it’s okay not to be Plato. Really, Marcus, it’s okay! Just keep working. Through the mere act of creating something— anything— you might inadvertently produce work that is magnificent, eternal, or important (as Marcus Aurelius did, after all, with his Meditations). You might not, on the other hand. But if your calling is to make things, then you still have to make things in order to live out your highest creative potential— and also in order to remain sane.
Possessing a creative mind, after all, is something like having a border collie for a pet: It needs to work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble. Give your mind a job to do, or else it will find a job to do, and you might not like the job it invents (eating the couch, digging a hole through the living room floor, biting the mailman, etc.). It has taken me years to learn this, but it does seem to be the case that if I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something (myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind). I firmly believe that we all need to find something to do in our lives that stops us from eating the couch.
Whether we make a profession out of it or not, we all need an activity that is beyond the mundane and that takes us out of our established and limiting roles in society (mother, employee, neighbor, brother, boss, etc.). We all need something that helps us to forget ourselves for a while— to momentarily forget our age, our gender, our socioeconomic background, our duties, our failures, and all that we have lost and screwed up. We need something that takes us so far out of ourselves that we forget to eat, forget to pee, forget to mow the lawn, forget to resent our enemies, forget to brood over our insecurities. Prayer can do that for us, community service can do it, sex can do it, exercise can do it, and substance abuse can most certainly do it (albeit with god-awful consequences)— but creative living can do it, too.
Perhaps creativity’s greatest mercy is this: By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are. Best of all, at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir— something that you made, something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration. That’s what my books are to me: souvenirs of journeys that I took, in which I managed (blessedly) to escape myself for a little while.
An abiding stereotype of creativity is that it turns people crazy. I disagree: Not expressing creativity turns people crazy. (“ If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.”— Gospel of Thomas.) Bring forth what is within you, then, whether it succeeds or fails. Do it whether the final product (your souvenir) is crap or gold. Do it whether the critics love you or hate you— or whether the critics have never heard of you and perhaps never will hear of you. Do it whether people get it or don’t get it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to be Plato. It’s all just an instinct and an experiment and a mystery, so begin. Begin anywhere. Preferably right now. And if greatness should ever accidentally stumble upon you, let it catch you hard at work. Hard at work, and sane.
Chapter 5 - TRUST
It makes me sad when I fail. It disappoints me. Disappointment can make me feel disgusted with myself, or surly toward others. By this point in my life, though, I’ve learned how to navigate my own disappointment without plummeting too far into death spirals of shame, rage, or inertia. That’s because, by this point in my life, I have come to understand what part of me is suffering when I fail: It’s just my ego. It’s that simple.
Now, I’ve got nothing against egos, broadly speaking. We all have one. (Some of us might even have two.) Just as you need your fear for basic human survival, you also need your ego to provide you with the fundamental outlines of selfhood— to help you proclaim your individuality, define your desires, understand your preferences, and defend your borders.
Your ego is a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master— because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, and more reward. And since there’s never enough reward to satisfy, your ego will always be disappointed. Left unmanaged, that kind of disappointment will rot you from the inside out. An unchecked ego is what the Buddhists call "a hungry ghost" --- forever famished, eternally howling with need and greeds.
My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder. And since creativity is my most efficient pathway to wonder, I take refuge there, and it feeds my soul, and it quiets the hungry ghost --- thereby saving mr from the most dangerous aspect of myself.
I know that it's merely my ego that has been wounded --- never my soul. It's merely my ego that wants revenge, or to win the biggest prize. It is merely my ego that wants to start a Twitter war against a hater, or to sulk at an insult, or to quit in righteous indignation because I didn’t get the outcome I wanted. At such times, I can always steady my life once more by returning to my soul. I ask it, “And what is it that you want, dear one?” The answer is always the same: “More wonder, please.” As long as I’m still moving in that direction— toward wonder— then I know I will always be fine in my soul, which is where it counts. And since creativity is still the most effective way for me to access wonder, I choose it. I choose to block out all the external (and internal) noise and distractions, and to come home again and again to creativity.
Because without that source of wonder, I know that I am doomed. Without it, I will forever wander the world in a state of bottomless dissatisfaction— nothing but a howling ghost, trapped in a body made of slowly deteriorating meat. And that ain’t gonna do it for me, I’m afraid.