Category Archives: Perfectionism

The Friday Review No. 4: Remembering Stillness and Forgetting Perfectionism

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Painting by Martin Battye FRSA, and my own inept reflection!

This week has been about catching my tail.

You know those moments where you come out of a period of frantic activity and realise that the house is a tip, and so is your head?  Suddenly you find yourself coming in to land in what you think is home, but which turns out to feel like a strangely alien place.

So I’ve been sitting still.  Listening to the birds outside the window.  Doing self-care things, like going to therapy appointments, meditating, remembering how to do the down dog asana (though in my, case, very badly), journaling, and indulging my muse.

I took myself off on an artist date.  Not to a gallery or the movies.  I went for an hour-long wallow at the library.  I love our library.  Its huge.  I always feel like I’m in a sweetie shop with an unlimited budget.  Sometimes I go in there, and I can’t see anything I want to bring home.  Other times, such as this one, there are so many books I want to take home and cuddle that I just can’t decide.  Well, you can only read so many words in the three week loan period, and I figure the ones I like will pop up again soon enough.  I came home with six, including two art books which I hope will help me to get drawing again.

The choice of art books was partly prompted by a dear friend, Martin Battye, painter and raconteur, Fellow of the Royal Academy and my husband’s cricket club.  He lent me a few of his old sketch books a while ago, as I wanted to write a blog post about his creative process, thinking his images might inspire you, dear reader, as much as they do me.  Then Life happened, and the sketchbooks stayed patiently waiting on my desk in a plastic carrier bag for the time when Life would get out of the way, and I would remember I had a blog!  This week, Martin needed his sketch books back, and I felt awful, of course, for neglecting my promise to him, and his kindness in lending me his treasure trove.  I looked through the pages and was once more dazzled by the obvious fact his work illustrates:

It’s a sketch book.  That means it is a work place.  A place to try things out.  You don’t have to get it perfect every time.  Or, as artist and illustrator Cliff Wright puts it so brilliantly:

‘Drawing is a great medium for experimentation because nothing is set in stone – you can always do another drawing if you don’t like the first one.’

Cliff Wright, The Magic of Drawing: Bring your Vision to Life on the Page, David & Charles Ltd 2008

This has been a revelation to me, a victim of perfectionism all my life.  Even as a kid, I struggled with the idea that I could make a mess and get it wrong and practice till I was happy with the end result.  Somewhere along the line, the idea of playing, and of practicing something to get the hang of it, got lost.  It had to be perfect first time.  Which is, I suppose, why I eventually stopped making art altogether.

Martin’s sketchbooks, the sketchbooks of a man I think of as a ‘proper’ artist, show that making rough sketches, making a mess, scrabbling about to find the right line, are what sketchbooks are all about.  Which makes it alright for me to do the same, somehow.

I’m grateful to Martin for his support and generosity in sharing his work with me, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of the precious images from his sketchbooks with you soon.  In the meantime I’m taking this crucial revelation about perfectionism into the coming days, hoping it will sink in permanently this time, and allow me to try stuff out, experiment, get it wrong.  Because that is how you learn.

Happy Creating,

EF

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The Benefits of Giving Up

The Cumberbatch

Gratuitous Cumberbatch photo. Just because I felt like it!

Dear Reader,

I want to tell you about why its sometimes a really good idea to give up.

You weren’t expecting that, were you?

In my last post, I wrote about the folly of trying.  Of pushing ourselves beyond endurance, and as a result, being unable to achieve the things we want.

That post was an example of me writing my own permission slip.  That day, I took my own advice.  I gave up trying.  I spent a lot of time just lying around.  I felt terrible, so why do anything else? I simply surrendered to what my body was trying to tell me.  Which was, in essence, ‘STOP’.

So far, so good.

The next day, I woke up at 8.30am, earlier than I am normally able to do, and in addition, woke with a clear head.

I grabbed my laptop and opened it up.

And I wrote.

I wrote all day.

In between spells of writing, I stripped the bed, put clean sheets on, did three loads of washing, tidied the kitchen, ironed some fresh pillowcases, made some long overdue phonecalls, and cooked a lovely supper for Husband and myself. I got so much done!

By close of play, i.e.11pm, I had written (get this) 6470 words.  Thats 27 pages.

The most I have ever written in one day.

(Round of applause, please.)

And all because I had given myself some much-needed space.

This is why you must learn to stop.  Yes, it is important to write every day.  Little and often is imperative.  Regular practise for any art form is necessary.

And there will be days when you sit down at your desk or in your studio and think:  ‘I really don’t want to do this today.’  And when you start, the brush strokes will be ugly or the words will come out like lumps of lead.  And then you will get going and things will flow and it will be alright.  (In fact it will be better than alright.  Because all the pain and depression you may have been struggling with will fly away, and creating will heal you.)  That is the point of any practise.

I am not saying you should only write when you feel like it.

What I am saying is that you must recognise that there are some days when your body is leeched to a husk, when your brain is too full or too empty to do anything but be.  Those are the days when you need to be gentle with yourself.  To put away the expectations.  And you will know those days.  The days of crisis.  The days when Life just steps in and pulls the carpet from under you.

If, like me, you live with chronic illness, working out which those days are becomes a little harder.  After 17 years, I am getting better at it, but I’m still not great.

The important thing to remember is that when you release the pressure on yourself, the result is often magic.

Its very Zen to say: let go of perfectionism, let go of expectations, but its easier said than done.  We all carry expectations from society, our upbringing, our peers and ourselves.  Letting them go is a daily practise in itself.  I am reminded however of an old saying I once heard:

“Let go, and Let God.”

Once we stop trying, once we stop tensing up and forcing things, the creativity flows through us freely onto the page or the canvas or the keyboard.  When we are free to make crap art, we learn.  And invariably, in my experience at least, when we give ourselves permission to make crap, what comes out is pure gold.

So here I am, in the aftermath of this great day of writing, assessing what I have learnt, what I can take with me from this experience.  I don’t know if what I wrote yesterday was gold or dross.  Chances are it will be about 50/50.  I don’t really care.  To be frank, it was fun.  It was an enormous relief just to spread my wings and fly without judging myself at all.

And I’m looking forward to doing it again just as soon as I can.

Happy creating,

EF

 

The Folly of Trying

My counsellor told me a story:

A man was asked at a conference to come up onto the stage, where the speaker had set a single chair in the centre.

‘Try to pick up the chair ,’ the speaker said.

The man picked up the chair.

‘No, you’re not getting it,’ the speaker said.  ‘Try to pick up the chair.’

The man picked up the chair again.

‘No, you’re still not getting it.  TRY to pick up the chair.’

The man put his hands on the chair and then, in a flash of inspiration, he understood.

Because TRYING to pick up the chair is not the same as picking up the chair.

If you TRY, you never actually achieve the action.  You just TRY.

Or, as the venerable Yoda said, in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’:

Try not.  Do.  Do or do not.  There is no try.

(I had that on my door at college.  I don’t think I understood it then.  Now I do, I really, really do.)

This wisdom has really been banging on my door today, as I struggle with a cold, coming on the back of a bad spell of IBS and ME/CFS.  I am busy TRYING.  Trying to get better.  Trying to feel well. Trying to cope with the housework. Trying to write.

Sometimes you have to recognise the wisdom of ‘Do or Do Not.’

Lately, I worry that this blog has become more about illness and less about creativity.  More about my TRYING experience.  But I think it really is an important lesson to learn for creative people.  We push ourselves and push ourselves, driven by expectations and perfectionism and Gods-know what demons we have inside us, deftly planted there, no doubt, by our loving parents. We dance the dance of the OUGHT-hogs.  The SHOULDS.  We are so busy forcing meaning into our lives as creatives, as Eric Maisel ill-advised (IMHO), that we pulverise our souls and our bodies into gibbering wrecks, terrorised by all the goals we fail to achieve and the standards we are incapable to meeting.  Books about how to write invariably advise the student that they have to write every day, no matter what.  I don’t think thats healthy or, frankly, practical.  Of course, it helps if you can.  A lot.  But seriously, who can write when their child has been up all night vomiting, or they have just received a redundancy notice?

Sometimes you have to treat yourself with loving kindness.  Sometimes you have to lower your expectations, and maybe even give in to the avalanche that Life has dumped on your head.  I have been talking to several friends who are all struggling with ill health this week, recovering from cancer treatment or at the end of a difficult pregnancy, or even in bereavement, and I truly believe that this is something all of us needed to hear.

Sometimes you are allowed to stop trying.

Sometimes its good to stop trying.

And then, when you have given yourself a break, a rest, a time of wound-licking, you can get up and go and do what it is you need to do.

MInd you, I have probably just proved myself wrong by writing this blog post, because I’ve spent the last six hours lying in bed groaning, absolutely convinced that I couldn’t write anything today.  So there you go.  Take from that what you will.  Just promise me something?

BE KIND TO YOURSELF

Happy Creating,

EF

 

Permission

On Ardnave Beach, Islay, which I am yearning for dreadfully at the moment.

On Ardnave Beach, Islay, which I am yearning for dreadfully at the moment.

You know what they say about what you should do if you fall into quicksand:

Don’t struggle.

I wrote the other day about my fear of writers block, and it definitely struck a chord.  It seems so many of us are struggling to keep going, as if we are still trying to run even though we have one foot nailed to the floor.  Trying, trying, trying.  We give ourselves such a hard time.  We beat ourselves up because we aren’t good enough.

My dear friend Michelle, who can always see what I need better than I can, said to me:  ‘I know you are frustrated because you aren’t getting better as fast as you want to, or expected to.  But maybe you aren’t better because you haven’t waited long enough.

In other words, give yourself a break!

The thing that keeps coming up for me when I think about this issue is:

COMPASSION

We need to have compassion for ourselves.  We need to give ourselves time.  One thing I know:  if you stop struggling, you stop sinking.  If you stop trying so hard, things come so much more easily.

Michelle gave me permission to stop trying to be well.  She sent me home to bed.  I slept better that afternoon than I had in months.  Just because I wasn’t trying to feel better.  I was simply letting my body have what it needed. No striving.  No struggling.

I think we get writers block because  we are so busy striving.  We don’t give ourselves compassion.  Or permission.

Permission to write crappy first drafts.

Or crappy sentences.

Or nothing at all.

Everything has to be perfect first time.  And it isn’t.  Because we are human.

Of course, what I said in my last post still stands.  Write anything, if its only a shopping list.  It will help.  But also, give yourself a break.  Be gentle and tender with your inner creative.  Release the stress, let go of the striving.  Remember you are doing this because you enjoy it.  And if you aren’t enjoying it, why are you doing it?

As if by magic, two blog posts I saw this morning chimed with what I have been thinking about this.

Jamie Ridler talks about bringing the tenderness and vulnerability of where you are to your creative work, and also about ways to help yourself fit creative activities in to your busy life.

Jennifer Louden, who is such a wise soul when it comes to compassion for oneself, talks to my soul and yours about letting go of perfection.

I hope that if you are struggling with a creative block of any kind, that you will be able to show yourself compassion.  Be kind.  You are doing the best you can.  And if you stop trying to write the greatest novel of the 21st century, and start writing a paragraph about your dog’s snoring, maybe it will come more easily.

Remember, baby steps.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

Inspiration Monday: Mad Thoughts!

Do you ever have one of those moments when you wonder WTF is going on inside your head?

I try to keep mindful of the thoughts that go through my head, partly as a defense mechanism against depression and overdoing things, but also to a degree out of sheer amusement because some of the stuff I think can be deeply bizarre.  For instance, here is yesterday’s offering:

“I don’t want her to think we’re the kind of people who don’t clean our bathroom mirrors.”

?????????????????

This raises so many questions about my sanity that I daren’t even go there.

BUT

What about using this as a creative writing prompt?

Who is the ‘her’ the speaker is so paranoid about?  A demanding mother-in-law, for example, the boss who might have a promotion available, or a rich friend, perhaps.  What sort of people don’t clean their bathroom mirrors anyway?  What kind of people are the ‘we’ mentioned?  Detach this sentence from me and my interiors paranoia for a minute, and think of all the possible short stories you could write using this moment of madness as a starting point.

There are so many little moments in life that could be writing prompts.  That is why you keep your writing notebook with you, so that you can write down the moment your mother-in-law steps over your threshold and into your new home for the first time, and the first thing she does is look at the floor and say ‘I see you haven’t hoovered today’ (you moved in two days ago.)  Just imagine all the thoughts that would come into your head then!  Or when the hostess of a dinner party you attend dispells a painfully embarassing moment by announcing, without any preamble:  ‘I like cheese.’  (What was going in inside her head?)  Or when you catch yourself wondering what it would be like to eat daffodils (answer: don’t – they are poisonous.  I looked it up.)  Or even wondering what alpacas think about.  What do alpacas think about anyway?

Your mind is a garden of unbridled surreality and whimsy.  Don’t ever think you are short of prompts.  Its all inside your head.  All you have to do is watch what is going on.

Happy Creating,

EF

Journal Friday: The Emotional Swingometer

go away bagThe Creative Life is a carnival ride.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Right now I am on the rollercoaster.

Thank goodness for my diary.  If it were not for that little Moleskine notebook, I would be a complete basketcase.  Actually, I’m probably still a complete basketcase, but I feel better about it, because I write it all down.

The days when I am completely sure I have squeezed every last drop of juice out of Johnlock.

They days when I can’t stop writing Johnlock.

The days when I have so many ideas for stories that I don’t know what to do with them all.

The days when my imagination is a barren wasteland.

The days when one comment has convinced me that my work is utter crap and I owe it to the world to never write again.

The days when a stroppy comment has filled me with so much anger and resentment and martyrdom that I am going to passive-aggressively hold the entire fandom to ransom by never publishing another Johnlock story again because frankly those bitches are all so ungrateful.  (as if they’d even notice.)

The days when that novel I am writing is the greatest thing ever written.

The days when that novel is so bad I am ashamed to even walk into the same room as my laptop.

The days when reviews flood in, and I am Queen of the World and Goddess of All Writing and my ego is the size of Jupiter.

The days when the reviews flood in, and they just aren’t praising me enough, they’ll never say enough good things about me because I am so bloody wonderful, which of course means that secretly I know without doubt that I am an absolute fraud and completely useless.

The days when the reviews flood in, and I am cowering under my desk in shame that anybody could think that story I wrote is readable.

The days when I am satisfied because I have written something that I think is good.  Good in the way that tapping on solid mahogany with your knuckles is good.  Something that is out of my own real, original voice.  Something that I am satisfied with.

The days when the fandom bores me to tears, or irritates the hell out of me, and so does my writing.

The days when I know my writing is completely stagnant, and I need to progress onto the next stage but I don’t know where to start.

And the days when I just sit down and write.

Before, or after I have written some fiction, I take a little time to reflect.  Sometimes I write in my journal to get my juices flowing, the way Morning Pages are supposed to.  Sometimes I write afterwards, to reflect on where I am going, on my emotional equilibrium (or lack of it).

Usually, when I have published a story, I watch the comments coming in, and try to write through my responses, the paranoid ones and the egotistical ones, the happy, the grateful and the furious.

My journal helps me keep my writing experience in perspective.  There isn’t a lot of perspective about our own creativity, lets face it.  We are all reared to be perfectionists, to rule ourselves out in the basis of not being Picasso, or to believe ourselves to be Dickens without needing to do the hard work.  It is so hard to be objective.

My journal helps me remember that the only life I am saving when I write is my own.  In the great scheme of things, this is not battlefield surgery.  Or, if it is, it is on my emotions alone.  That is why objectivity is important.

I need to remember that my writing is not about what other people think.  It’s about me.  At its very core, it is about healing my own wounds. 

Even if I never publish another word, I will still keep writing, partly because it’s a compulsion, and partly because it mends my soul.

That is why keeping a journal is crucial for every creative person, whether you are amateur or professional.  It reminds you of the WHY.

How do you use your journal in your creative process?

Happy journaling,

EF

On Perfectionism (and Timing)

Carpet makers in Turkey weave a mistake into every carpet they produce - because, they say, only what God makes is perfect.

Carpet makers in Turkey weave a mistake into every carpet they produce because, they say, only what God makes is perfect.

A friend was trying to finish his novel.

‘So many grammatical errors,’ he moaned.  ‘So many mistakes.’

He worked so hard that he wept.  It would never be perfect.  It would never be good enough.

All this effort, two days before he was due to be married.

There is perfectionism, and there is timing.

Perfectionism is a disease I suffer from myself.  It has blocked me for years.  Nothing can ever be good enough.

I set my standards so high, I never fail to fail.  And then I look at what I have failed to do, and tell myself I am useless, and that I will never finish anything.  Without noticing (conveniently) that I have set myself up for the perfect fall.

I am perfect at this.

So it is with this blog.  It had to be perfect.  It had to be faultless.

Never mind that I have a serious chronic illness that regularly prevents me from leaving the house, which affects my cognitive function to the extent that at times I can neither read nor write, nor understand what is said to me.

The blog still had to be perfect.  And I had to post three times a week.  Regardless.

Regardless of my health, or looking after elderly, sick parents, or my husband’s workload, or my marriage, or the weather, or having to attend friends’ weddings, or making time for much-needed holidays, or anything else that comprises having a life.

Add in the blog and perfectionism and you have a recipe for disaster.  Or at least a very poorly blogger.

This is as insane as my friend trying to perfect his novel two days before one of the most important and stressful days of his life.  (And happiest, lest we forget.)

Sometimes, you have to sit down and recognise that perfectionism is a disease created by Nigel.  Sometimes you have to stop, and realise you haven’t been very realistic about what you can achieve.

And you have to move the bar.

Perfectionism and timing have combined to create the perfect storm in my life right now.  I have been going through a bout of severe illness, and just at the start of August, the busiest month of my year so far.  My mother is coming to stay for a week.  Friends are getting married, and babies are being welcomed into the clan.  The garden needs watering, and I have a craving to write original fiction that I have not felt in many months.  With limited energy, and limited time, I can only do so much.

Conclusion:  this blog cannot be perfect.  It only has to be good enough.

It only has to be here to encourage you, dear reader, on your own journey of writing and creative discovery.  It only has to be witness to my own creative process, as I try to navigate a way through illness and into producing a novel that will make my soul sing, and make you turn the page with delight.  It doesn’t need to be the be-all and end-all of teaching writing – there are plenty of other people who can do that so much better than me.

Here are my good enough dreams:

I want to write that novel.  I want to write an ebook on journaling for you, too.

WARNING: RIDICULOUS DREAM SHARE ALERT

I want to make a collectors’ edition of my novel, illustrated with my own art, for you to buy.  Yes, I know, it’s crazy, but it’s something that is calling me, and somehow I know I have to follow its siren song.  And you are supposed to share your creative dreams, aren’t you, to help make them happen?  So I am sharing my dream with you to give it some karmic weight.  (Yeah, I believe in this stuff.  Bear with me.)

I also want to be well, have a holiday, enjoy some quality time with my mum, have a happy marriage (i.e. see my husband occasionally), water the garden and, well, have a life, really.

And I don’t want either perfectionism or bad timing to get in the way.

So I’ll make a deal with you:

I’m going to blog twice a week, instead of three times.

Sometimes I might only manage once, but if I do, I want you to know that the time I haven’t spent writing a blog post for you has been spent either a) getting well or, b) working on a creative project like my novel.  Because the blog can’t take up all my creative energy.  That just doesn’t make sense.  The blog is not the purpose, it is secondary to the purpose.  The purpose is the writing.

There was a time, this time last year, when I thought I would never have the courage to set up this blog.  Right now, I am scared that I will never have either an ebook or a novel to offer through it.  This time next year, I hope I’ll have proved at least one of those fears wrong.  In the meantime, I am moving the goalposts, lowering the bar, and whatever other clichés you care to insert.

I hope that you will stick with me.  I hope that you will share my journey, and tell me about yours too.  I hope that we can learn this together, that we can kick Nigel into touch and fill our lives with creative joy.

Happy creating,

EF