Battle of the Blank Page: Perfectionism
So you’ve finally made it to your desk or propped yourself up on your pillows. You have your mug filled with your favorite drink, a freshly baked muffin, and there it is: the blank page. The cursor blinks. The pen twists uncomfortably in your hand. You’ve overcome the challenges of procrastination just to be here, but now nothing is happening.
Your mind might feel as blank as the page in front of you. The brilliant idea you had on your walk, the dialogue that you finessed on the drive home…they’ve evaporated. You hesitate.
Maybe it’s a brand new notebook and, as the first letter forms, you realize your handwriting looks ugly. The words appear on the page in a clunky, awkward manner. There is no flow. This is not the brilliant story you imagined writing. This is garbage.
The Pressure to be Perfect
You might not call it “perfectionism.” It hides under other guises like “Type A” and “Results Driven.” If you yearn to be the best, to be impressive, to give it 101%…. well… you’re probably struggling to wade through what will be imperfect drafts. And it’s hardly surprising.
We live in a society that worships perfect. It’s not enough to take one photo, we have to take dozens until we get “the perfect” angle. Then the photo is altered and filtered to death. Magazines are filled with photoshopped celebrities. Commercials try to sell us products that will make us look younger, happier, or more popular.
Then there is the creative world itself. One of the darkest moments in my life was born from a teacher who was critical of every tiny mistake, every minute error. The audience is never supposed to see us sweat: the ballerina must move effortlessly, the musician should never miss notes, the painter must hide his mistakes or start again. Is it any surprise that we feel worthless when our first feeble paragraphs don’t sound like great literary heroes?
So rarely do we see ‘behind the scenes.’ We aren’t privy to the hard work and dedication that—sometimes—results in beautiful works of art. As a community we need to be more open about the difficulties we face, the failures we are struggling with, and the sense of loneliness that settles when everyone else seems to be doing ridiculously amazing things. But until there is more transparency, it is important to remember that behind every published novel is a slew of drafts, edits, and a team of people polishing every square inch.
It’s normal if your own writing pales in comparison.
Ah, that word. Comparison. Comparing yourself is something I will talk about more in my post about Pride, but it is worth noting here as well. We, as artists, learn by comparing ourselves to ‘the masters.’ That’s how we grow. But it is so easy to cross the line and see our own awkward efforts as meaningless or shameful. Give yourself permission to be a beginner. Even if you aren’t a beginner! Call yourself an advanced beginner. We are always learning, always growing. Your journey is your own. It doesn’t matter what award Jane received or how many of John’s books have hit the bestseller list.
That’s their journey. Not yours.
Why Perfectionists Procrastinate
But, you wonder, if perfectionists want to be perfect so badly, why don’t they just do the work?
When the standard is perfection, you can’t help but fail. You’ll always be a failure. And so not starting is the answer.
You see, if you never even try, if you do not begin, you can’t possibly fail. There will always be the excuse in the back of your mind, “Well, if I did write a book, it would have won that award.” It’s a built in out! Your ego stays intact because you know you have the talent or the potential for greatness. Deep down (or not so deep!), you believe your ideas are brilliant. But taking yourself out of the game means you never have to face the possibility that your best isn’t good enough. You never have to wonder if your 100% wasn’t enough because you never even bothered to give 60%.
And there’s a reason for this. Perfectionists care deeply about the quality of their work. It is painful to imagine pouring your heart and soul into a novel (or other work of art) and finding that it simply wasn’t good enough. That personal failure, that vulnerability is something perfectionists fear. Because perfectionists hear differently. If someone said “this painting is ugly and worthless,” a perfectionist would hear “YOU are ugly and worthless.” Our identity is tied to what we create. So we shy away from the starting line, afraid of rejection, failure, disappointment, and pain.
But, perhaps you gave 40%. When things don’t work out—when you don’t finish the book, when you don’t make that bestseller list—you can soften the blow. “Well, if I had really tried, it would have gone differently.”
Maybe. Maybe not. But you never have to worry about it, do you, dear perfectionist?
Be a do-er not a dream-er
Of course, avoiding failure also means that you aren’t taking risks. And that is quickly followed by regret. Perfectionists, in my experience, are usually ambitious. We dream big dreams. We have lofty goals. When the competitions pass you by and the job opportunity floats away… three years later you’ll be left with only two words:
I’ve learned this the hard way. Don’t let the cycle continue. If you see yourself in these paragraphs, don’t wait for the moment you are prepared, ready, better educated, more in shape, happier, financially more stable…. write now. Create now. Time will only pass. And you will never be ready. You will never know enough. You will never feel confident that, this time, you’ve really got it.
And that’s okay.
To break the chains of perfectionism, you have to embrace vulnerability. You have to accept that you will make mistakes—big ones. You will be wrong. You might end up humiliated.
Do it anyway.
Flail wildly. Write the worst thing you can think of. Then write it again—make it better. (Perfectionists are excellent editors. But leave the editor outside until you’re done drafting).
Creating art is not open heart surgery. If you play a wrong note or write a cliche story or ruin a slab of marble, no one dies. You might die on the inside, of embarrassment, but the beautiful thing about giving yourself permission to fail, is that the more mistakes you make, the freer you feel. Your mistakes are learning opportunities, not reflections of your worth.
So don’t let your life pass by as you dream impossible dreams. Make them happen. Go ahead, sit at your desk. Make a mistake on purpose. Get the first one out of the way.
Overcoming Perfectionism: Writing Exercise
Set aside thirty minutes to an hour of writing time for five consecutive days. (For instance, Monday to Friday!) Without any pre-planning, set a timer and write a short story. The goal is to get bones onto the page, so don’t worry about coherency or word count. Try your best, recognizing that if you don’t have all the answers, that’s okay. You have four more days to figure it out. When the timer ends, stop writing. Walk away.
On Days Two through Five, copy and paste your story from the previous day into a new document. Save as a new draft. Spend your 30-60 minutes of writing time editing, reworking, rewriting, or adding depth and flavor. You are not allowed to scrap your story and start over. You must keep working with this one. Try to have a final draft completed by the end of Day Five.
On Day Six, read your first draft from Day One and compare it to your final draft from Day Five.
How are they different? Are you surprised by how much progress you made in such a short period of time? Keep your drafts as a future reminder that what might start as a skeleton with plot holes and bland characters can bloom into something masterful—if you’re willing to embrace the imperfect first draft.