March 5, 2009: Banishing Perfectionism

One of my struggles in life — which I may or may not have mentioned before — is with perfectionism. The problem with being a perfectionist is that it’s an either/or proposition: something’s either perfect or it’s worthless. Imperfect excellence doesn’t count. It’s ashes and sludge.

Two things are helping me this week.

One is U2. I have some sense of the critical knocks against the band: Bono can be pompous, the music can be bombastic and over-the-top, etc. I’ve complained here about the triteness and obviousness of Bono’s lyrics. All of that is at least a little true. But I still utterly love the band; for as long as I’ve been aware of them — almost their entire existence — they’ve sung the songs of my heart. “Magnificent,” from the new album, is the song of my soul. It’s the willingness to risk being called bombastic and over-the-top that gets the band to the place where it can create music that matters so intensely to me.

The other is Elizabeth Bear. One of my friends reminded me this week of Bear’s statement that the object isn’t perfection, but to “fail better.”

I love that. It eases the thing in me that tightens up when I worry that what I’m doing isn’t perfect (which means “isn’t very good”). I can happily gaze at my work and think, “I’ve never failed so well in my life. This is my best failure ever.”

If it seems like I’m lowering my standards, I am. I want them to stop being so high no one could meet them, so high they paralyze me as I listen to a panicked little voice muttering, “I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” I want to be able to say, “No, I can’t do that, but I can do this,” because “this” is a better failure.

Because I’ve at least partly tamed perfectionism in other parts of my life, I have confidence I’ll be able to do it with my writing. I will never be entirely free of the voice that whispers “If it’s not perfect, it’s no good,” but I don’t have to pay it so much heed. With help — help that can come from anywhere — I can learn to let go.

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