Saturday, 28 June 2014

Striving For Perfection: A Great Idea (Theoretically.)

Well, it's all over; Number One Son's eighth birthday party went swimmingly, a fab time was had by all and my stress levels have returned to normal. Normally I would recover by eating cake, but today... cake is likely to make me run for the hills, to be honest. Don't want to see cake again for a very long time. Maybe even a couple of days...

As you might recall from my previous post, I had been tasked with making a Minecraft Island birthday cake, and I was determined to do it justice. The vision in my head was a work of art. My imaginary Minecraft Island cake was a thing of such cakey awesomeness that grown men would look upon it and wish they were children again, so they could have one just like it for their birthday. Every angle was mathematically perfect, every inch of the icing was smooth and flat and coloured to perfection. That was the cake my brain wanted to make.

Unfortunately my brain was just the foreman; the actual work was left to the pair of easily-distracted and somewhat unpredictably-coordinated flappy things at the end of my arms. And they clearly either didn't get the memo, or are spectacularly bad at interpreting instructions - either way, my brain wanted to fire them both on the spot when it saw what they'd done...

It's alright - I'm not fishing for compliments. It's not bad, I know that. But it looks nothing like my brain's interpretation (which was utterly freakin' incredible) so my brain is currently having a massive sulk and screaming that it's awful, a travesty - an insult to cakedom. My son pronounced it 'awesome,' and his little friends were suitably impressed - which I keep telling myself is all that really matters - but even so, I still can't stop myself doing a Simon Cowell Face every time I look at the chuffin' thing. When it came to recreating the sculpture of loveliness in my imagination, I failed.

And I do this so many times, in so many areas of my life.

Whether it's cake-making, arts and crafts, acting, singing - and yes, writing too - I start off with a picture of perfection in my mind, and when the thing I actually produce (inevitably) fails to live up to that ideal, I feel ashamed of both it and myself for faceplanting so far short of the impossible goalposts. It's probably held me back in my writing far more than I care to admit. And as I keep on truckin' through Draft Two of The Renegades, I'm starting to realise I'm going to end up feeling the same way about that too. I'm gonna need to fix that if I want to get this baby published.

I'm far from the only writer to point my arrow at perfection every time. Many of us - even if we don't admit it out loud - have a secret ideal in our minds of who we want our work to be compared to in terms of standard; 'the next Stephen King,' 'the new J.K. Rowling,' 'the Romance Genre's answer to George R.R. Martin' (mmm, okay, maybe that last one wouldn't work so well...) Anyway, those of us who are perfectionists tend to reach for the stars - which is fine, as long as we don't keep turning back in disgust the minute we've left Earth's orbit because our rocket's making funny noises.

There's nothing wrong with striving to produce only the very best work you can do; in fact, readers expect nothing less from any author whose book they've bought and rightly so. The difficulty, if you're constantly chasing perfection, is learning to accept that your 'best work' probably isn't going to be that, because it's simply not achievable - by anyone. If your Inner Critic is a drill sergeant he'll no doubt tell you to abandon all hope - if it looks like what you've produced isn't going to be a No. 1 Bestseller then you've already failed and you should just give up now. Inner Critics have their uses - but they can be a dick sometimes too...

While I was studying Performing Arts I had singing lessons as part of that course. Before that point, I did not sing with the intention of anyone actually hearing it - the very thought of it terrified me. During a one-to-one session with my singing tutor, I confessed to him that this was because I actually hated my singing voice. He asked me why, and after thinking about it for a bit I told him "because when I sing something from Les Mis, I open my mouth and I want Lea Salonga to come out - but all that comes out is me." He laughed and said "Well, you're not Lea Salonga, are you? You're you. So you've got a choice. You can either wait until you magically turn into her before you ever sing a note publicly - and then you'll waste the rest of your life not doing any singing at all. Or you can accept that you're you and work on making your voice the best it can be."

I haven't done any singing in public since graduating from that Performing Arts course, so I think I shall take his words and apply the essence of them to writing instead, since that's my focus now. And to any fellow perfectionists out there: have a high-five from me. Our best is better than 'perfect.' We need to remind ourselves of that whenever we beat ourselves up.

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