Happy new year, everyone! It’s a brand new year, a chance for a clean slate. And isn’t that terrifying?
I’m an avid journaler. There were points in my life, mostly in school, where I would take the time to write in a journal every single day. These weren’t short entries, either—average length of each entry was two pages, and my handwriting is tiny! I highly recommend it to anyone in an artistic or educational field: a chance to flex the creative muscles, organize your thoughts, and do some valuable introspection on who you are and what your mission is about.
You’d think that for someone who journals so frequently, this blog would be teeming with new posts and wild ideas. Surely someone who writes so much for a hobby would have no trouble putting out creative content on a regular basis for everyone to see, right?
To this day, after more than a decade of journaling, I spend a good five minutes just staring at the blank page in front of me. My hand is eager to write. There’s a myriad of thoughts just waiting to jump out through the ink to be preserved for posterity. But I don’t write a single word. I stare at the page… check my email, stare at the page some more… put on some music, stare at the page again… refill my coffee, and stare at the page again, and again, and again… Because I want what I write down to be perfect. It doesn’t matter that I’m the only person who ever sees what’s written in these journals (unless of course I inexplicably become important enough for the history books and some aspiring musicologist stumbles on my journals years down the road). Yes, this journal is for my eyes only. But it really shouldn’t be any surprise that that doesn’t make much of a difference. Most artists are perfectionists to some degree, and academics even more so. We’re our own worst critics, especially of our own thoughts.
Now imagine having to own those thoughts on paper, even if only for yourself to see.
This isn’t even getting into the fact that I try to use the same type of pen every time I write in this journal (Pilot G2 with black ink and a .38mm tip), with the same general paragraph length and style formatting. Yes, even for a handwritten journal. Even in my rough drafts, I’m subconsciously insistent that I nail the craftsmanship. Does “anal-retentive” have a hyphen in it? Heaven forbid I make a typo. That would involve scribbling something out—which is concrete proof that I didn’t get it right the first time.
So if I’m this way with my own private creativity… just how bad is it with the creative things that I share with others, where I’m pretty much forced to be vulnerable?
I’m not alone in this. In fact, there’s a big, fancy word for it: Atelodemiourgiopapyrophobia.
Literally, the fear of imperfect creativity on paper.
There are many kinds of “paper” in our field. Blank Word documents. A new manuscript notebook. The Score setup wizard in Finale and Sibelius. A “new e-mail” window. Even the record button in a mixing studio. Brand new opportunities to make something new. And damned if that “something new” doesn’t get the right start.
This can paralyze anyone working with their own brand of fresh canvas. So how do we overcome it? How do we not let our innate perfectionism slow us down?
Well, not that I’m great at this by any means, but here are four ways I’ve learned how to do it…
1. Intentionally make a mistake
Think about the first new cell phone, laptop, or instrument you ever bought. You might have immediately gotten the best case for it you could find. A screen protector. A polishing rag. Special cleaner to get rid of the fingerprints (I know someone who even got special gloves so that they wouldn’t get fingerprints on their new horn). You want it to stay spotless for as long as possible. You want it to stay new.
And then… the horror… you notice after a few days that it has a scratch.
You might get wound up for a few minutes. You don’t even know how that scratch got there. But soon enough you forget about it. You might still notice it, but you’re done getting worked up about it. Even the fingerprints aren’t as offensive as they used to be.
And then the next day you notice two more scratches, but they don’t get to you. It might have a dozen scratches or even a small dent after a few weeks. But you can’t be bothered about them at this point.
Congratulations, you’ve learned that there are worse things than imperfection. In fact, some craftsmen (Persian rug makers come to mind) intentionally leave a small imperfection in what they’re doing for their own philosophical reasons. To these people, blatant imperfection is less offensive than the illusion of perfection—especially in art.
So get that imperfection out of the way! Misspell a word. Scratch your pen across the journal page. Cough as loudly as you can into the microphone. It takes the pressure off, and frees you up to not care as much. And that’s when your brain is relaxed enough to kick the creative output into gear!
Besides… you can always fix that mistake later. Almost always, anyway.
2. Acknowledge that someone will dislike the finished product regardless
I’m sure that there’s someone out there who hates my music. They might even dislike the fact that I have a blog. If they read my journal, they’d be horrified. They’d laugh at my manuscript paper. If I ever asked them for a job, they’d tell me there wouldn’t be a snowball’s chance in Hades.
I have no clue who that person is. And that’s probably for the best. If I knew who they were, I’d be tempted to try to bring them around where they really aren’t worth my time.
I do know one person from my hometown when I was in my late undergrad, however: an assistant church choir director who refused to even look at my choral portfolio because, in his not so humble opinion, there was absolutely no way a composer in his twenties knew how to write church music. To frame the extent of his disregard for me and my work… on one occasion someone handed him a hard copy of my choral portfolio, and he set it down on the table and walked away without a word, not even opening the folder.
Funny enough, two of the pieces in that portfolio were later performed in Canterbury Cathedral on two separate occasions.
Still, I’m convinced that wouldn’t have made a difference to this choir director in the slightest.
Nothing you create will be liked by everyone. Sometimes they won’t even look at what you create because they don’t like you. Sometimes they won’t like it because of things that have absolutely nothing to do with you or your work! And at the end of the day, realizing that fact from the get-go makes it harder and harder to care what those people think. You can avoid imperfections all you want, and you still won’t please them.
Depressing? Perhaps. But it’s also strangely liberating. Because that choir director is completely irrelevant to me now. I have other people who are interested in my work, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s the one missing out, not me.
All the same, it’s good to think about him from time to time. He reminds me that in the world of art, there’s no such thing as universal acceptance. There’s really no such thing as perfection. So I don’t have to worry about my new pieces being spotless just yet.
3. Embrace the criticism of those you respect
Of course, there are people you really want to please who aren’t going to necessarily like your first drafts right out of the gate. These people have a name: they’re called teachers.
If your private teacher likes everything you present to them without giving any sort of criticism, you really need a new teacher. You’re paying them (or their school/university) to point out your mistakes! And some of them are very, very good at it.
My undergrad composition professor, Dr. Ken Jacobs, was notorious for being hard with his students’ work (never the students themselves, just their creative output). We kept lists of the insulting things he would say about our work, even going so far as to post a list of Top 10 “Motivational Comments Inspiring Me to Write Better Music” on his office door. FYI, he loved it so much he had us add to it until there was a list of 80+ statements posted on his door. Here were a few of them:
- Your main theme is a random doodling.
- That’s got Kraft with a K written all over it.
- This is monotonous.
- This is horrible.
- You’ve gotta be kidding me, that’s the end?
- I’m going to cut off my ears if I have to listen to that again.
- This is so cliché.
- This is a disaster.
- Let’s not write elevator music.
- That section sucks. Thank God it’s short.
- I don’t have a problem with that mainly because you didn’t go on long enough to screw it up.
- This is crap, and there’s a lot of it!
Strangely enough, he would say all of these things and still somehow make it 100% clear that he respected you as an artist and an individual, and that he was only harsh because his standards were high and he expected you to meet them. Yes, you sometimes left his lessons crying. You sometimes questioned whether or not you could ever make it as a legitimate composer. You also either went on to big-name schools with scholarships or graduated feeling as relatively prepared as you could feel to enter the workforce—albeit perhaps with a little artistic PTSD to overcome.
But that doesn’t happen if you stay either afraid or indignant of that criticism. That doesn’t happen if you don’t learn how to push back. And most importantly, it doesn’t happen if you let that criticism cripple you into inaction.
Best way to stop being afraid of something is to expose yourself to it on a regular basis. Why not by someone you trust to make you better?
4. Learn to love the imperfections
We live in a culture that is addicted to perfectionism, and not just in music or academia. A typo in a spreadsheet can mean extra hours of work trying to balance the company budget. A faulty autocorrect can make the difference between a formal email and inappropriate lewdness to your colleague. Miss your work shift once unannounced, and you could potentially be fired on the spot. That one point on your LSAT or MCAT could determine whether or not you receive a full ride to an Ivy League school or just another rejection letter.
It’s enough to make anyone go mad. No wonder we have an epidemic of anxiety disorders.
No one’s going to meet that standard all the time. Not as an artist, not as a person. And that’s okay! The best we can hope for is that the mistakes we make can be quickly spotted and corrected. And thankfully, in the world of art, we the creators are the aptest to discover the things we think can be improved. Half of our perceived imperfections in our own work, almost no one would ever notice unless we pointed them out.
In the grand scheme of things, our mistakes just aren’t that significant. In fact, sometimes the absence of those mistakes makes things boring or unnatural! It’s why some people hate auto-tuned voices or photorealistic graphic art. They miss the imperfections that give the medium its flavor, and something seems inhuman in their absence. If we can learn to appreciate that, we’ll stop seeing these imperfections as crises and start thinking of them as opportunities.
One departing thought on this musing, a quote from one of my musicology professors in my masters when I got a little too caught up in the editing process:
“No paper is ever perfect, only finished.”
And it’s hard to finish something you never start.
Happy creating, everyone. Here’s to a new year full of endless flawed possibilities.