On Process and Perfectionism

I’ve been secretive about my artistic process for as long as I can remember.  I hid my modeling career from everyone but my closest friends until I had what I considered an "established portfolio."  I was making my living as an art nude model, and only two or three of my friends knew about it.  You’d think it was because I was ashamed of posing nude or worried about what other people would think of my life choices.  But honestly, it was because I was worried I wasn’t good enough.  

I knew my parents would be supportive of my decision to model nude as well, but I didn’t tell them about it until long after the fact.  I waited until I had a gallery opening they could attend.  It was my “Naked Lady” show; all of the images were of me, by one photographer.  We had hundreds of people through the gallery for opening night, and the photographer and I had even created a book to go with the show.  I waited for this event to tell them because I didn’t want my parents to just be supportive; I also wanted them to be impressed.  

In the same vein, I didn’t start blogging until I had been a successful model for several years.  I wanted to blog long before that—no, let me be honest: I started writing essays three or four years before I ever posted one to my website.  Most of those essays were never read by another person.  I refused to have people watch me as I learned.  I wanted to come out of the gate with something “worthwhile,” or not at all.  

Hiding my process is so inherent to me that it goes back to when I was a baby.  Apparently I would practice walking when I thought no one was looking at me.  I fell down a lot—obviously—but if nobody saw, it didn’t matter, right?  I only walked in front of an audience when I knew I could make a long distance without falling over.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only person who’s too much of a perfectionist to show their process.  I would never, ever write or share something before I had an idea how it would play out.  And admit that one of my art projects failed?  Publicly?  No way.  

But my long-held obsession with process and perfection is now affecting me as I get more serious about my writing.  Actually, I’ve been writing a lot.  Among other things, a couple months ago I finished the rough draft of a novel.  It looks something like this:

However, unless we’re friends that actually know each other in real life, you didn’t see this picture.  You would never know that I’ve been writing.  Because I only shared it on my personal Facebook page.  Even then, I only shared it because my boyfriends bullied me into it.

If it were up to me, this photo would have never seen the light of day.  It’s the definition of my worst fear: what if I tell everyone I’m going to try to do a thing, and then I don’t succeed? It’s not necessarily a fear of failure, although I certainly don’t like failing.  It’s more of a fear of the unknown.  I don’t know how edits will go, or if the book will ever be readable, let alone published.  I’d much rather hide in a corner until I have something "good enough."  Then I can pull an Athena and look like I popped out of Zeus’s head with a fully formed book clutched in my hand.  Or keep hiding in the corner until I realize that what I’m working on will never be good enough, and then no one will be the wiser.   

But there are negative consequences to hiding process and being a perfectionist.  I’m not gaining anything by hiding my process.  Instead, all I’m creating is a fragile and false sense of security.  And I’m missing out on all the benefits of sharing my work early: quicker feedback, which ultimately leads to more growth.

Also it turns out that hiding all your failures kind of makes you sound like a jerk.  For example, I had my best friend tell me that one of her friends wanted to get to know me, but the poor girl didn’t know how to talk to me because I was "too intimidating." 

That was perhaps one of the most disheartening things I’d heard.  I have imposter syndrome like no other, and here I was causing it in someone else.  I’m being that person.  The one that only says how amazing life is and look at this big accomplishment and lah-de-dah. I don’t want to be that person.  I don’t want to make things worse for the people around me.

I think at some level, we’re all ashamed perfectionists.

I think at some level, we’re all ashamed perfectionists.  We’re too scared to show anything but the finished product, so other people don’t see our flaws.  And then we all feel alone with our processes, wondering if we’re the only people who actually fail at things.  That fear of being perceived as a failure drives us to hide our process from other people, and the cycle continues.   But by getting over that fear and being willing to share just a little bit, we can break the cycle.

If I had been willing show a bit of unfinished work, I would've had my blog years earlier.  I would have been sharing my modeling with the people that I love.  I would have been discussing my novel instead of just trying to appear to be good at writing it.

I’m not saying that the answer is to share every little detail of my life on social media, or even to admit to all my schemes before they’re finished.  I’m just saying that I shouldn’t hide everything until it’s polished and perfect.  I shouldn’t let my fear of failure be my motivating factor.  And I shouldn’t be so obsessed with looking perfect that it hurts the other people around me.  I need to balance between the motivation of my perfectionism, and the honesty of my process.

Yes, it’s scary.  And yes, I’m honestly and truly worried that if I admit to my process and possible future failures that people won’t love me or respect me anymore.  But I think it’s worth it in the long run.  I think it’ll be an opportunity for both myself and my art to grow.