The Careless Creative

To overcome the inertia of perfection, you should be a careless creative and a ruthless editor.

One way to define perfectionism is that it’s the attempt to edit something before it has even been written. It is the second-guessing of what hasn’t yet been made, and the lie that you can and should get it right first time.

The problem with perfection is that it turns you into a ruthless creative. Each word I choose or mark on a page is instantly subjected to intense scrutiny, and I am overwhelmed with the flood of criticism that I generate from each minute decision on the page, whether composing a poem, writing an article, painting a watercolour.

To create well, you need to be careless. You need to start and not worry too much about where you end up. Even when there is a vision for what we want to create, we have to accept that we might not go to that exact point. The creative work is still to be uncovered. That is the myth of perfection: that something can be finished and complete before it has even been created.

Although I publish as much as I can, there is a wealth of writing that never makes it out of the pages of notebooks. There are even essays and posts that I have typed up on my desktop but will likely never see the light or be read by anyone else. This is where I play, where I write anything that comes to mind, where I try out ideas. Some of them become poems and some get written up and published. But I don’t begin with the pressure of producing a masterpiece, and sometimes I do come up with something interesting and innovative.

To find the gold you have to sift the dirt. In this sense, writing well is a question of proportions. If I write one good poem for every five bad ones, then I need to write at least six poems. If I write more rubbish, I’ll write more gold. There has to be both. Perfection demands that you make no mistakes, that you write no dirt. But writing well is really about increasing your hit rate.

Creativity is about surprise, fun, fluency, release, spontaneity. It is about stumbling into a moment of insight and execution. To be a creative is to teach oneself to stumble into that moment more often. Some of my best work has been created without me even noticing. It is as if I have to become immersed in the process and trick myself into creating a piece before I become conscious, because when I realise what I’m doing the spell is broken.

Editing, by contrast, is the preservation and presentation of that moment, or at least the artefact that remains from that moment: the words, the paint, the sculpture, the notes. Perfectionism is something like the confusion of one for the other, as if trying to preserve and present an idea that doesn’t yet exist. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t edit. But editing must come after creation, and it must be ruthless. Much of the time, we become ruthless creatives and careless editors. Inertia prevents us from creating any volume of work, and lacking ruthlessness means that we are unable to do much with the little we have.

For all the benefits of digital technologies, I find it much easier to access creative carelessness with pen and paper, or at least away from the screen. The blinking cursor is too easy an invitation to begin, and then erase to begin again. How many first sentences or first words have been second-guessed because that travelling line allows us to take back immediately what has just been set down?

Writing by hand is much underrated. I wouldn’t call creating by a hand a lost art, but I would say that there is a lacking appreciation for such practice. The cleanness of software, the ease with which we can edit and hit Ctrl+Z takes away from the necessary mess of creativity. A hand written journal remembers the mistakes. It captures the rawness and originality of ideas in ways that a word processor cannot.

This is the choice of action over constant pondering. A preoccupation with editing, with the perfection that could be, keeps you stuck in the possibilities of what has not yet been created, rather than in the practice of creativity. Action drowns in over-thinking. I find that writing by hand gets me away from a complex of excessive editing.

The first words set down may not be the right ones, but at least they are a start, the first irrevocable steps on the way toward something that may be of worth. Some doodling can eventually be worked into a poem or an article or a story. But not if I don’t begin with some words, somewhere.

EssayDavid N Rose