Notes from a reformed perfectionist: N M Browne
Once upon a time I was a perfectionist. This will come as a surprise to anyone who has known me over the last thirty years. I am untidy, careless, a last minute by the skin of my teeth kind of person, an optimistic, ‘it’ll be all right on the night’ under-preparer.
Long ago, in the days when my hair was long and brown and I’d never heard of anti wrinkle night cream, I was conscientious, disciplined, ambitious and er teetotal.
God, I miss that girl. She would have a clean, well-organised office, a full work schedule and would probably be far too busy doing something important to write a rambling self-indulgent blog. However, I can’t entirely regret her demise because, though a small number of brilliant perfectionists publish incredible books, I suspect that most perfectionists don’t publish anything at all – lost in an eternal editing loop: nothing is ever perfect.
I was made very aware of what I’d lost when I was chatting to a friend last night. She is still a perfectionist and I, very unfairly, rely on her to do all the work in our choir so that I merely follow where she leads. I don’t think she could believe that this lazy, red wine toper with such a cavalier attitude to tuning, timing and indeed singing had a perfectionist hair on her unbrushed head. When she asked, a little dubiously, how I had eradicated this tendency so completely, she really made me think.
It probably began at university when I decided not to live in the library or indeed go to lectures. By the time I did an MBA I was half cured and there the workload was so heavy ‘satisficing’ – ie just getting through, was the main aim. Then there were the children and a whole twenty years or so when getting to the end of a day with everyone more or less in one piece was enough. I stopped setting myself ridiculous goals and berating myself for never achieving them, I learned to live in the moment, enjoy the now, wake up and smell the coffee. ( I may have overdone that last) Along the way I also lost my competitiveness, my desire to be the best, which only now re-emerges when I play my husband at Scrabble.
Losing my perfectionist streak has been a kind of slow accommodation with failure, or at least with limited success – accepting that a book is not necessarily going to rock the literary world, but is at least finished, that my writing may not be brilliant but is good enough. Perhaps though, in this last act, now is the time when my life and my writing would be improved by a rediscovery of this long lost personality trait?
I don’t think it will be easy. As I write on my laptop in an armchair thinking about lunch, I am trying to persuade myself to clean my office, arrange my pens in size and colour order and reinstate some serious self-discipline.( And to learn my music.)
Writers can be too exacting but we can definitely also be too relaxed, too accepting. Maybe all creative artists need a healthy fear of failure to do their best work even as we accept its inevitability.
OK. I’m walking away from the armchair now. I may be some little time…