Here’s What I’ve Learned About Writing and Imperfection

For a long time, I held a contradictory view of myself: that I was a person who loved writing, but preferred not to write.

Now let me be clear, I’ve always been writing something; essays at school and university; freelance content writing for some money on the side; even the odd attempt at a book or poem that I’d eventually discard. But I’d never actually finished writing something in my own time, just for myself. That’s where a big distinction lies, for me—writing for yourself, versus writing when it’s necessary.

Without an underlying motivation, deadline, or incentive, my writing would always fall apart. I’d have short bursts of inspiration that would depart as quickly as they arrived. My computer documents and iPhone notes were a graveyard of half-baked ideas, sentences, and descriptions. They’d haunt me, wailing any time I scrolled past their uncompleted introductions and ellipses. I regretted ever starting anything. As I saw students around me writing screenplays, books, and poetry, I wondered… what’s wrong with me?

 

How could I claim to love writing, yet rarely do it in my free time?

 

Now, I realise why that was: fear of imperfection.

One of those lovely, deep-rooted, and familiar fears. Writing was always supposed to be the thing I was ‘good’ at. I feared writing independently, because I worried it wouldn’t be as good as I expected. As good as it was supposed to be.

I didn’t want to shatter the image I had of myself by engaging with it. It required some mental gymnastics—my favourite sport back then—and it’s paradoxical, but really I think it makes sense. Anxiety stems from the unknown, and I didn’t want to cross into that unknown—to find out if I truly was inadequate.

For someone like me, throwing myself into something unknown is daunting. I’m the type to search ‘top places to eat nearby’, followed by scrolling through the menu PDF before making a decision. The type to rush to IMDB before I’ll consider watching a film. These are trivial examples, and not necessarily bad things—but in these traits, we can find things indicative of personality.

A screenshot of a tweet that reads "yes i'm a writer. no I don't write. we exist" — inspired this on writing and imperfection
The tweet that inspired this post. The effect that viral tweets have on discourse, particularly among young people, is really interesting. Perhaps an article for another day, Twitter as a communicative phenomenon.

Here I am, though, writing something without any incentive, deadline, or expectation. Not overly concerned with whether it’s perfect or even that good. And I’m enjoying it! Just vibin’. So, I guess, I’ve finally managed to overcome this fear.

Methods will change from person to person, but for me, this is what worked:

So, what did I do?

I started writing a project I thought no one would ever see.

This ‘something’ was my travelling diary. I knew that time would eventually wash away the everyday details of travel. The memories that seemed so vivid would cluster into a fleeting sequence of images and highlights, instead of the living, breathing experience that it was.

That’s just how it works—your brain can’t store every little detail for immediate access. It’ll store those things slightly deeper, in the higher-up dusty cupboards, where you’ll need a prompt for access—like a passing anecdote from a friend that unearths a previously buried memory, for example. Or, in my case… a detailed account of what I did day to day. I thought that if I wrote it all down, I could keep it breathing. That was my inspiration, and it was powerful.

Unsurprisingly, I found so much satisfaction in actually doing what I had supposedly always ‘loved’ doing. Shocker.

Once the travelling was over, I was left with a diary as long as your average novel, some 60,000 words crammed into my notes. There’s some rubbish in there, but also some really good stuff.

I realised that I actually wanted to edit it, to fill it with air, and cast it out somewhere. Now, slowly, I’m sharing the results on this site. Just another WordPress, most likely to be buried under the desert sands of internet content. You’re welcome.

For so many years, my mindset was all wrong. I was keeping myself from growing, frozen for ages—I see that now. Worrying about being the best at something is just setting yourself up for failure before you’ve even tried. And you can’t become great at something without trying, practising, and failing. The process of unlearning is difficult. My relationship with writing was a microcosm of an issue that many of us face, I think.

As another related-but-not-so-related example, I put off exercising for years because I didn’t think I was ‘good’ at it. I associated it with failure and negativity. Obviously, that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And yet, now, 3 years on from my first daunting experience of stepping in that gym, I can’t imagine my life without weightlifting. So many other things fell into place after that step. Things have changed a lot over the past few years.

Inadequacy, failure, embarrassment—they’re such controlling and creeping fears.

But the truth is that you’ll never be happy if you let them govern what you think and do. Oops, have I fallen into dramatic cliche territory? Probably.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that self-improvement is the antidote to inadequacy. Simply trying and practising—putting yourself out there—is the cure. Each step makes the next easier, unlocking step after step, interconnecting the progress that you make. Just gotta take the first step.

Thinking about my fear of inadequacy and imperfection has made me realise something: so much of my happiness has come from trying new things. Travel, weightlifting, self-motivated writing—hell, even creating this far-from-perfect website! I don’t want to play it safe. I want to keep branching out — and if I don’t enjoy something, then that’s fine. At least I’ve tried. This is something I need to be harder on myself with, but also to recognise the progress I’ve made.

What if the thing that we love most in our life remains undiscovered, because we’re scared we’re not good enough, or just don’t bother to find out?

I think we owe it ourselves to try and to be more experimental with our time. I’ve always had an affinity with Sylvia Plath’s fig tree metaphor, glimpsing all the possible futures that stretch out across your mind’s eye…

another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America… wrinkling and blackening, as one by one, they plopped to the ground…

For Plath, these futures were stifling, suffocating. But instead, these possible futures should be empowering. It’s a lot easier to write in a blog post than to live that reality, though—I get it.

I’ll finish by simply saying this: do more of what you find liberating. If you don’t know what it is, then go out and find it. Try. For me, it turned out that one thing I truly find liberating is what I knew I should be doing all along.

 

If you enjoyed are looking for some more writing, check out my review of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, or learn a bit of my favourite literary theory with this piece on science fiction, cognitive estrangement, and Ursula Le Guin! Cheers!

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