Do you ever think as humans we’re just afraid to get our hands dirty? That we’ve engineered our lives to be as perfect, pristine, and efficient as possible? And that maybe, if we aren’t perfect, then we’re failures?
I’m trying to abolish this idea from my creative life. The idea of perfection.
Because the reality is, imperfection is what makes art beautiful. The famous painting of the Mona Lisa, for example, has been called a “flawed masterpiece.” We all love to analyze the work of our favorite writers, finding the flaws in the bigger picture. Imperfections let us into the artwork.
Here is a list of things that slowed down my writing this month in NaNoWriMo. You also might call them “things that happen in life.”
- My dogs ate cat meds that a delivery person threw over our fence and I had to call the APSCA toxicology hotline. (They were fine.)
- One of my dogs injured herself the next week while playing in the yard and had to have stitches. (She is fine.)
- I had a dentist's appointment and found out I have to have gum surgery. (I am fine too, surprisingly enough.)
- Our washing machine broke. (It was not fine, but we got a new one.)
- I had to go to Austin for a poetry reading. (Very few people showed up, as sometimes happens.)
- My Mom came to stay with me for Thanksgiving. (This was fine also, but added a bit of stress because I had to clean my house to prep.)
- I got a cold on November 30th. (I am fine again.)
As November rolled on, I started thinking the universe was out to get me. I was exhausted every day. I only got to write every few days because of all the life stuff happening, but I managed to catch up on those days by writing extra. There were several days where I gave myself permission to relax and take care of myself instead of writing or take care of my family/pets/house because these things needed to be fixed. Somehow, the writing got done. Somehow, the life stuff got done too.
Dear reader, every single thing on my list eventually sorted itself out. This got me thinking. What if living a writing life isn’t this perfect, curated, #amwriting image portrayed by Instagram and Twitter, where we spend every day hitting an optimum word count and managing goals? What if all that is just this big cultural myth in today’s gig-obsessed world?
What if there’s some deeper way to engage in a balance between writing and daily life, family life, love life, pet life?
I managed to write 40,000 words in November, despite all of the above. On the day NaNoWriMo ended, I saw a lot of writers online saying they had “failed” NaNoWriMo by not hitting their optimum word count. They felt like they had done a disservice to their creative work. And I know how they feel. I’ve made writing goals for myself and then cratered them. It’s a crap feeling to know that you wanted to achieve something but for reasons often outside of your control, you just didn’t.
Y’all, no one but you cares if you are a failure. You define what is a success. You have control over your life.
There’s no such thing as failing at NaNoWriMo. It is literally a made-up challenge built off of the obsession our society has with overachievement. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I love NaNoWriMo. So much so that every year I offer a December Editing Special for writers who participated. I think we need to stop thinking about our creative work as something that needs to be metered out, measured, and over-achieved.
The reality is that there is a lot of writing out there in the world, and some of it sucks. But whether or not you’re in the game to get published, maybe it doesn’t matter if your writing sucks. Maybe what’s more important is WHY you’re writing.
You could make any month NaNoWriMo. And any month has the capability to steamroll you like my November did. (I will say that November is particularly good at being a jerk, though.) This is the act of writing. It’s looking at the month and deciding, “Screw it, I’m going to write anyway.”
This is the problem with the perfection myth. It assumes that everyone works at the same pace. That everyone needs to damage their health, be exhausted, ignore their every day life, just to achieve perfection. That you can’t be a writer or an artist if you don’t create every day. If you’re not killing yourself, you’re not an artist.
This is so, so wrong. The beautiful thing is that any day has the potential for words. It works both ways. When you dedicate part of your life to writing, you get to decide.
If you look at writing as a kind of meditational practice, an almost spiritual way of connecting with the world around you, then it’s easier to see how hitting a word count is an arbitrary goal. It doesn’t matter how you NaNo, just that you do it your way and that it brings you joy.
When you step back and stop looking at your work as something that has to be perfect, you start to understand that the reason why people love to read is because stories aren’t perfect. Readers love imperfect characters who make mistakes. We love stories that are rough around the edges. No one wants a neat, easy, simple ending. We crave chaos.
The world is strange and chaotic and beautiful in its imperfections. So why do we keep expecting the writing life to be perfect?
I say, embrace the strange. Let your writing be weird and imperfect. Let life in. You might be surprised by how your thinking changes.
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.