This story isn’t your masterpiece, and that’s fine

Harsh feedback taken too personally caused me to stop writing for four years. Angry, afraid, but mostly ashamed, the voice of self-doubt grew enormous in me, any time I had an idea or a vague vision of a story–hold off, I told myself. Wait to write the perfect thing.

So many of the barriers to our writing are self-imposed. Although we may cherish the idea of storytelling, the actual attempt can be a torture. The voice of doubt bears down within us–“What are you doing?” it shrieks. Why am I writing such filthy drivel? Breathe, we must say. Breathe, don’t listen–

Joachim Beuckelaer, “The Country Market” at the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy. It seems like a masterpiece to me. I wonder what Beuckelaer would have said.

Many of us hold, nurse the idea that the piece we are writing, this one, that it will be our masterpiece. This is the story I must pour every bit of myself into. It will say everything I have to say. There’s no point, after all, in writing anything other than my best work.

I have seen this habit for years in perfectionistic students. They refuse to begin, because, they say, they do not have the right topic. This isn’t the perfect story, and so I’d better not tell it, they say. I tell students time and again, that it’s okay. “This doesn’t have to be the best essay that has ever been written,” I say. I’m not sure they believe me. For many years, I didn’t believe this either. It’s easier to see the fault in logic when it’s not your own.

At the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte in Naples, we saw Caravaggio’s The Flagellation of Christ. It’s displayed in its own darkened room, with spotlights. Who gets to decide what is a masterpiece or not. The artist? Scholars? The viewer?

When I set out to start writing again, when I at last tried to face the criticism that had sent me running, I attempted to begin anew the masterpiece that had been torn down. I was going to write it perfectly this time, to tell my truth to the whole world. I could not do it. I wrote a sentence, deleted it, again, again. I questioned next the whole idea–what a foolish concept, I complained. The shame was sharp-pointed. I closed the file. I’m not cut out for this, I said. I don’t have anything to say.

A small masterpiece of nature, this blowing curtain at Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte.

When a new idea came, one I found interesting even if it didn’t feel like “masterpiece material,” my mind grew curious once again. I wrote a scene. The world did not implode. I sketched an outline. “I’d read this,” I said.

That idea proved a salvation to me. It was good enough, I said. It’s practice, I wheedled, for the masterpiece. I spent the next three and a half years with that idea, and I had a novel.

That insistence on writing only the ideal story held me off for too long from writing that is good, that has helped me grow, that I now feel proud of, that I am excited to continue. I took on what felt to me like a safe project, because it wasn’t so close to my heart. As time went on, my heart grew closer to it. I care about it quite a bit now.

Someday, perhaps, I’ll write that old story, the one I called my masterpiece, the one I was too terrified my clumsy words would mar. But there are so many stories worth telling in the meantime. So many things more approachable to write. In fact, it’s my own fixation on the idea’s importance that makes it a mountain for me. It doesn’t have to be perfect, I remind myself. I’m just telling a story.

How about you? How do you face the sweet siren of perfectionism? It’s a complex I still try to battle or outsmart. I’m still looking for ways I can harness, rechannel it.

Ceramics are often discounted as artwork. Produced en masse for the rich, these seem like masterpieces to me. Who made them? The names are lost. At the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte

Thanks for reading. This blog post, too, is not my masterpiece. But I’m glad I’ve written it. That is the great project, after all, to share the self. Imperfect, perhaps masterpieces all the same, each one of us. I’m not sure.

Best wishes,
Jimmy

Naples at sunset, this past Sunday

2 thoughts on “This story isn’t your masterpiece, and that’s fine

Add yours

  1. The “perfect” being the enemy of the “good” comes up in many fields of human endeavor. In my career when we tried to think of new food products someone would always come up with a reason why this wasn’t the perfect product to work on. That often stifled anything getting done. I’m glad you are writing again. Writing the perfect story or novel may be elusive. But now you are writing good stories that many people will enjoy and you are practicing and honing your skills as a writer.

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