Blocking the Flow: Perfectionism

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Week 7 of the Artist’s Way – the first week of the second half of the workshop – was profound for me. I found myself the last two weeks feeling a little blah about my forward movement but trusting that the process was still working whether I realized it or not. My Artist’s Date last week was writing poetry in a notebook while I watched the barges go by on the Mississippi. I felt vaguely disconnected and mildly irritated at the structure that poetry requires, so I eventually ended up writing some free-form prose about the obstacles in a river flow, the frustration with traffic flow and the lack of flow in my life. It didn’t feel very inspirational at the time, but writing about it now feels inspirational. My prose rambled on about our innate desire to go with the flow even with all of the natural obstacles in our way. We do overcome if we are persistent enough. And, being persistent doesn’t mean fighting harder. It means trying again and again until something clicks.

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So, week seven’s reading was about Recovering a Sense of Connection. It was about connecting with the flow of creation. Of course, it was about connecting with God, the ultimate Creator. Julia Cameron makes the point that art is not about thinking things up. It’s about getting things down. I know that when I’m writing in the flow, the words come to me. I can’t keep up sometimes. After I wrote my first blog, I didn’t sleep well for at least 4 nights. I had so many thoughts and stories in my head that were fighting to get out. I wrote 3 times a day at times. It was as if ‘whatever it was’ wouldn’t stop. I wasn’t writing as much as I was transcribing.

Perfectionism is one enemy of stepping into the flow. I don’t consider myself a perfectionist. My house isn’t neat. I go to work with cat hair on my skirt, and I don’t care. I fly by the seat of my pants sometimes at work, and I’m fine with it. But, I was totally convicted by Cameron’s lesson on perfectionism.

“Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things. It has nothing to do with standards. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop – an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole.”

I realized that I have been waiting to figure out what book would sell or what people would like or to identify my expertise. The need to know ‘what it should be about’ was paralyzing me from getting started. I’m getting some rewards from that. By not starting, I can still entertain the fantasy that I am a great writer and capable of making a living from it. If I start, I may not be so great. I may not make any money from it. My fantasy might fall apart in a huge puff of failure. What I’m not recognizing is that it is already in a puff of failure because I won’t start. When I read that section on perfectionism, I felt the hammer of awareness beating on my heart. The clouds lifted, and the sun was shining on my very own private demon. Yes, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was her one and only book, but that’s not the usual path for writers or filmmakers or painters. The norm is practice, practice, practice, fail, fail, fail, and create, create, create. I was so strongly convicted by that section that I immediately committed to scheduling several hours a week for writing. I was convinced that it wasn’t about WHAT I was writing. It’s about the fact that I AM writing. WHAT will come to me naturally … or it won’t … but I will have stepped into the flow in persistence.

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I’ve lived in two cities on the Mississippi River. I became fascinated with barge traffic in Memphis. The Mississippi River has always been a powerful transportation and trade avenue for this country. Empty barges are pushed upriver against the powerful current by tugboats – little warhorses designed only to fight the flow. I would see ads in the paper for tugboat captains and barge workers, and I’d fantasize about being on that river and stepping into and against that flow day after day. When the barges are loaded down with cargo – approximately 180 freight trucks in volume – they slip more easily into the flow of the river and head downstream. They are efficiently harnessing nature’s power to fulfill their purpose. They don’t try to damn the river or slow the flow. They use it by accepting it for what it is and adapting.

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The swamplands here depend on the silt and mud in the Mississippi River for their regeneration. Because people have tried to change the river by making levees, we are losing our wetlands in Louisiana. We tried to control it, and we are suffering for it. The loss of our wetlands is one of the reasons Katrina was so devastating to New Orleans. I cannot control the flow of creativity. I can’t direct it either. But I can ignore it. I am a tugboat operator. I need to leverage my power to step into the flow, load up with the tools I need and then let the flow take me. Cameron promises there are enough screenplays, books, paintings, dances and poems out there for everybody to create. She says they are all written and created in their entirety. It’s my job to write it down. I wonder which ones I’ll get to transcribe. My office is ready. I’m making the time. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

7 thoughts on “Blocking the Flow: Perfectionism

  1. I have 1 takeaway & 1 give-back from your blog post today:
    “…but I will have stepped into the flow in persistence.”
    This is the give-back. I guess you could call it positive (and true) feedback. My perception is that you have been in the flow of persistence for *quite* some time — a prolific and dedicated writer. You have been doing it for a long time. It’s inspiring and impressive.

    I get that you are wanting to take things up a notch with your writing. And I understand that you are mining your creativity right now — exploring the ways it can grow & evolve.

    You have proof of what you can create if you are persistent. Just look at this damn blog! It’s amazing! You have written with passion and commitment — persistently and over a long period of time. So….if you can do this…I can’t wait to see what’s next for you!

    OK, now for the takeaway. I thank you for this…it’s like you have given me a great big gift when you define persistence with these 2 sentences:
    “And, being persistent doesn’t mean fighting harder. It means trying again and again until something clicks.”

    Even though I have examined my habits/tendencies around persistence/work, hard work is nearly always my default. When obstacles come up, my first reaction? Pushing, trying, pulling, tugging and working myself until I’m exhausted, aching, heavy, burnt-out and broken.

    I often visualize persistence as an image of me pushing a huge boulder up a steep hill.

    Your definition of persistence feels so much better — lighter and more playful. I prefer your way: stop fighting and start watching for the ways things might click.

    Making a note of when things do click might also help me…as in gratitude which is what I offer to you this evening.

    • Thank you so much for commenting. My default is pushing that Boulder up the hill too. It is so funny what happened with my writing at the levee. I walked away thinking that was a waste of time. I wanted to write some poetry but what came out was disjointed, unrelated, not poetic. But the thoughts I had about the river and blocked traffic really made me realize that’s it’s not a ‘pushing against’ but a ‘showing up’. And, of course, it helps that Julia Cameron’s writing is interpreting things.

  2. Love this – the topic, your insight, and Leah’s response as well. I need to embrace that definition of persistence, because it feels like something I can do that won’t be full of negativity and disappointment. Just keep on keeping on. I did not write anything new this year to submit to the writing contest I’ve been contributing to for the last 5 years, which made me feel pretty frustrated with myself. A solution was to submit a piece I had already finished that was a finalist in another contest – a way to continue on the path of writing and validate that it is still something I need to do for myself and my spirit. Perhaps good things will come of that act, but it is comforting to think the act itself is enough.

    • It is enough! And if you take a break, that’s ok too. I guess I didn’t realize you were a writer. And you like my blog! I’m so flattered. Maybe I should find a writing contest. That might be fun.

      • I responded to your comment the other day from my phone, but it didn’t make the leap 😦 I wanted to say that I don’t actually call myself a writer, but I do write as often as I can. (Probably should look at that as well…) And you ought to try submitting some of your essays to a writing contest – I am sure there are many people with whom your writing would resonate the way it does with me. You have an admirable talent and an obvious passion!

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