"Immersion in the life of the world, a willingness to be inhabited by and to speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human, these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva but of the writer." --Jane Hirshfield

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Never Finished, Only Abandoned: Artists and the Perfectionism Trap

A WSJ article on the newly restored Orson Welles film has us thinking about perfectionism.

"Any form of limitation, obligation, responsibility or enforced duty was intolerable to him, rendering him claustrophobic and destructive." That's the wrong kind of perfectionism, and it led, as it usually does, to disaster.
The article goes on to chronicle how he lost credibility with Hollywood because of his demands for unlimited tolerance and funding, and had to go the indie route, where he did not have sufficient resources to realize his vision.

With writing, it's more a time issue. We haven't got forever to finish a work, even if we haven't got an entire cast and crew standing by. I find that "limitation" can be freeing, when you commit to a form, a plot or a deadline, even. Then you just do it. Which is not to say every work must fit the same form or any particular form.
The wisest artists are the ones who finish a new work, walk away and move on to the next project. Whenever a colleague pointed out a "mistake" in one of Dmitri Shostakovich's compositions, he invariably responded, "Oh, I'll fix that in my next piece."

I think we have to accept that what we do is the best we can do at the moment. That's hard, because not only do we see it, but our audience also sees that this is the best we can do. We have to own our limitations and move on, and in creative work it's so subjective. Almost no matter how well you do, there will be some who don't like it. But endless revising limits our output and experimentation, which in turn limits innovation. The article's author, Terry Teachout, says perfectionism begins with indecision, but it's just as likely they are the same thing, not being able to decide which way to take a piece, how much to polish, if it is done, etc. Perfectionism is there at each stage.

And, it's not just in writing and making art. I had this issue when training for martial arts tests, and waited too long for my first level black belt. An instructor explained that to me, saying, "if your test is perfect, you waited too long." It only has to work, and this is something much less subjective in martial arts than in art, writing, film, etc.

We have to make sure our standards work, that they contribute to our output.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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