It’s a rainy, shit day in Durham and I want to talk about perfectionism.
I was one of those insufferable kids for whom school came easily. Worksheets, spelling tests, you name it – my goal was get everything right and be the first kid who finished. While that allowed me to skate through 3rd grade, it didn’t do me many favors later in life when I actually had to study or learn new skills. I thought any evidence of a struggle meant that I was an idiot. Young Me was harsh AF. Perfection was the goal, and if I didn’t nail it on the first try, I instantly jumped to the conclusion that I was a complete failure. Have you ever felt that way about yourself?
If you read my first post for ASBX, you learned how “Nobody Cares” became a touchstone for me to move past fear and perfectionism during the writing process. I received another excellent piece of advice that day related to this story.
The story describes a pottery class where one half of the class was instructed to make perfect pots. The other half was instructed to make as many pots as they could. At the end of the semester the students entered their best pot into a contest. Overall, the students who made the most pots also tended to make the best pots. In essence: Want to get good at something? Do the thing. Again and again. As much as you can. Aim for the practice. The product. The making. That is the goal. Perfection MAY BE a byproduct. Maybe.
Wait: Do you mean this might take work? I can’t simply sit down and watch the magic pour forth onto the page? There might be missteps and frustration and straight-up garbage ideas along the way? That’s the message? Why would anyone do this?
Then, the same message arrived in my tea cup. (In case you were wondering, yes I do, on occasion, take guidance from the sayings on tea bags.) I couldn’t ignore this one: “You don’t manifest epic projects without bowing deeply to your daily grind.” What the shit? Now my tea was telling me to practice? FINE. Message received.
For most of my life, nothing sounded like a bigger drag than practicing. But now I know that the more you practice, the more fun you have when you are doing the thing. The kinder you are to yourself when things don’t go as planned. The more easily you can hear feedback because you don’t have so much invested in your precious, perfect creation.
When I think about perfectionism now, all I can see is the fear behind it. Furthermore, I cannot think of a more absurd concept to apply to creativity. Someone please bring me a perfect piece of art. I’ll wait. [insert nail-polish emoji]
Perfectionism does not want me to embrace the inherent messiness involved with creating. It tries to convince me I’d be satisfied with a life where I never created anything but at least I never made a fool of myself. What’s it gonna be, Mara? Repression or self-expression?
To some degree, I will probably always battle perfectionism, but it is rapidly losing ground to the rhythm of practice. Much like that pottery class, practice is showing me that at best I might make something worthwhile, maybe even great, and at worst I am learning and getting better and getting braver. There is no downside.
We’re all in this together, Soapboxers. I’m interested to hear from you. Leave a comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org .
‘Til next time!
Hear Mara on Episode 001 of Artist Soapbox. Read her testimonial here.
Mara Thomas is a Durham-based playwright, actor, musician and teaching artist. Her newest original theatre piece, YES TO NOTHING, was commissioned by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concernand played to raving crowds at music venues in Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham in fall 2017.