Perfectionism is Rooted in Grandiosity

Excerpted from Hillary Rettig’s book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer’s Block.

Grandiosity, or the delusion that you’re special and/or don’t have to follow the normal rules governing productivity and success, underpins nearly every aspect of perfectionism. The writers in the previous chapter were all being grandiose, as are writers who believe they should be able to write polished first drafts (an oxymoron) or achieve commercial success without having to market or sell. Even reasonable goals can be grandiose if you’re not willing to pursue them strategically, or make the needed investments or sacrifices of time, money and other resources.

Another group of grandiose writers believe that, if they just publish the right book, all their problems will be solved. (“I’ll be rich and famous and popular!”) This is, basically, a gambler’s strategy: writing as slot machine. Here’s Steven Pressfield from The War of Art:

Grandiose fantasies are…the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.”

Grandiosity is a problem for writers because our media and culture are permeated with grandiose myths and misconceptions about writing, which writers who are undermentored or isolated fall prey to. Red Smith’s famous bon mot about how, to write, you need only “sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,” and Gene Fowler’s similarly sanguinary advice to “sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead,” are nothing but macho grandiose posturing, as is William Faulkner’s overwrought encomium to monomaniacal selfishness, from his Paris Review interview:

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much that he can’t get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.”

Many of the famous quotes about writing are grandiose. I’m not saying that all of these writers were posturing—perhaps that’s how they truly perceived themselves and their creativity. What I do know is that, for most writers, a strategy based on pain and deprivation is not a route to productivity. In fact, it is more likely a route to a block.

I actually find quotes about how awful writing and the writing life are to be not just perfectionist, but self-indulgent. No one’s forcing these writers to write, after all; and there are obviously far worse ways to spend one’s time, not to mention earn one’s living. All worthwhile endeavors require hard, and occasionally tedious, work; and, if anything, we writers have it easy, with unparalleled freedom to work where and how we wish—in contrast to, say, potters who need a wheel and kiln, or Shakespearean actors who need a stage and ensemble. Nonperfectionist and nongrandiose writers recognize all this. Flaubert famously said “Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living,” and special kudos go to Jane Yolen, however, for her book Take Joy: a Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, which begins with a celebration of the inherent joyfulness of writing. She also responds to Smith’s and Fowler’s sanguinary comments with the good-natured ridicule they deserve: “By God, that’s a messy way of working.”

Even absent a self-sacrificial imperative, the idea that writing is a holy mission is fundamentally antiproductive, since it raises impossible expectations and puts huge pressure on the writer (see the Labels section of Chapter 2.7). Partly for that reason, and partly because they are focused on their quotidian work as opposed to fantasies of success, and partly because they are focused on internal rewards, the prolific tend to see their writing not as some holy mission but their “work,” “craft,” or even “job”:

Stephen King: “Don’t wait for the muse…This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ‘til noon or seven ‘till three.”

Anthony Trollope: “Let [other writers’] work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”

(Love the skepticism at the end of Trollope’s statement, which I think is entirely justified when reading grandiose statements about writing.) Ironically, it’s the nongrandiose attitude that frees writers to consistently experience the glory and transcendence that grandiosity promises but only rarely, if ever, delivers.

The final problem with grandiosity is that it causes perfectionists to distrust and devalue work and success when they come too easily. “If it came easily, then it couldn’t have been any good,” is their motto. I can’t imagine a more self-defeating attitude.

The idea that grandiosity fuels perfectionism always shocks perfectionists, who think their problem is low self-esteem. But it’s grandiosity that causes the shame and low-self esteem by constantly setting goals and conditions the writer can’t possibly live up to.