True work
An altar to the Tenth Muse

On fear of judgement (and pernicious perfectionism)

Tilly in the studio

Since posting Neil Gaiman's advice on making mistakes, I've been engaged in several different conversations with my girlfriends which all shake down to a common theme: the way "fear of judgement" impacts writers, painters, performers and others working in the arts. The ability to view one's own work critically is, of course, a necessary skill; but when healthy discernment turns into destructive self-judgment, there is usually a persistent "perfectionism" in the mix....and although some folks boast of this, believe me, perfectionism is Not Your Friend.

As Hillary Rettig (author of The Seven Secrets of the Prolific, an excellent book on overcoming writers' block) explains: "Many people believe perfectionism is about setting a high standard for success, and since everyone wants high standards, it’s easy to fall into the trap of perfectionism. But perfectionism isn’t the same as having high standards -- not even close! It’s about setting impossible standards that destroy your joy and motivation around your work; and perfectionism is also about harsh self-talk, shortsightedness, self-punishing comparisons with others, an overemphasis on external approval and rewards, and a crippling over-identification with the work."

Studio muse at work

"Perfectionism doesn't believe in practice shots," concurs Julia Cameron in Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance. "It doesn't believe in improvement. Perfectionism has never heard that anything worth doing is worth doing badly -- and that if we allow ourselves to do something badly we might in time become quite good at it. Perfectionism measures our beginner's work against the finished work of masters. Perfectionism thrives on comparison and competition. It doesn't know how to say, 'Good try,' or 'Job well done.' The critic does not believe in creative glee -- or any glee at all, for that matter."


"Fear of judgement" comes in many different forms, and in many flavors of intensity from minor irritant or low-level stage-fright all the way up the scale to paralyzing preoccupation.

Some artists fear the judgement of failure: the manuscript unpublished, the painting unsold; and others the judgement of the marketplace: bad reviews, poor sales, disappointed fans. Some fear specific kinds of judgement: the lowered esteem of colleagues or certain critics, the negative opinions of family or friends. And for others, the harshest judge of all is the one who whispers inside our own head: You aren't any good. You don't know what you're doing. What makes you think you can write/draw/craft/compose/perform? You're mediocre. You're a fraud. You're a fool. You stink. And now everyone is going to know.

Only perfection will silence these critics -- or so we secretly believe, and since there's no such thing as the "absolutely perfect," we're damned before we've even begun. So we might as well do the dishes/weed the garden/look at cute cat pictures on the Internet, since the "perfect" time to create is always sometime in the future; the "perfect" never actually arrives.



Anne Lamott tells us in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

sketch, Terri Windling"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if  you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.”

Laini Taylor (author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy) says that coping with perfectionism has been her biggest challenge as a writer. "I have a stiflingly hard time moving forward in a project if it's not 'just right' all along the way. The trap I so easily fall into is rewriting and rewriting the same scenes over and over to make them perfect, instead of continuing on into the wild unknown of the story."

Oh yes. That particular trap is one that many artists know only too well. The "wild unknown" is where we need and long to be, but perfectionism stands blocking the way.

If your Inner Critic has morphed from Discerning Assistant to Perfectionist Monster, then I recommend the books by Hillary Rettig and Julia Cameron mentioned above. They explain where perfectionism comes from, how it impacts our work, and what we can do about it.  The Gifts of Imperfection by psychologist Brené Brown is also very good, though not specifically geared to the creative process. If the need to be perfect is spreading into the other parts of your life, however, Brown's intelligent and well-researched book may be of real help. There's also Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel, which is somewhat lighter in tone -- and thus best for those simply looking for some tips in an easy-to-digest format.

Weary muse

The Inner Critic, it should be noted, is the only form of judge over which we have any real control -- for unless we create entirely in private and keep our work strictly to ourselves, the judgements of others (whether it comes in forms as minor as an Amazon reader review or as major as a profile in The New York Times) can be studiously ignored, perhaps, but not dispensed with altogether. Judgement comes with the job when we work in the arts, and we all must make peace with this somehow. From the moment that our artwork, so tenderly constructed, leaves the desk/studio/rehearsal space and travels into the world at large I can guarantee you that it will encounter, somewhere, some or all of the things we dread the most: indifference, incomprehension, mockery, hostility, occasionally even downright hatred.

sketch, Terri WindlingYou think I'm exaggerating? My own work is hardly controversial in nature, yet one of my fairy tale anthologies was publicly condemned by religious authorities in Egypt for being depraved and immoral; and friends of mine have had their fantasy novels branded Satanic in the American South. (I believe Jane Yolen has even had her books burned.) For every person who has liked The Wood Wife (bless you all) there are also readers who have loudly pronounced it boring, batty, or just plain bad, and millions more who have never heard of it. Even Tolkien and Rowling's books, those great publishing success stories of our age, are not universally loved...and does it matter? No, not one little bit. It's not possible, or artistically desirable, to please all readers all of the time.

In our mass media culture (with its emphasis on mass), it is easy to forget that bestsellers lists, sales figures, and number of page hits are only one measure of worth and success: the measure of the marketplace. There are other measures, other scales, other units of value -- and, the practicalities of earning a living aside, each of us gets to chose the measure by which our work and our lives are served best. (I highly recommend Lewis Hyde's The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World for a closer look at this subject.)

Drawing table

Let's speak for a moment of the importance of courage. The stereotypical "unworldliness" and "sensitivity" of artists, though often useful to the art-making process itself, can become a liability when we step out the studio door. Out in the world we must be brave, steadfast, thick-skinned...and perfectionism doesn't help us.

Perfectionism is a bargain with the Universe: If my work is absolutely perfect, then you, oh Universe, will absolve me from my mortal share of  judgement, criticism, disappointment, and hurt. But the bargain never works. There is no such thing as "perfect," no life entirely free from pain. There are only artists so afraid of these things that they box themselves into smaller and smaller creative spaces: safe, familiar, isolated, sterile. Focused on perfection, they're unable to see the artistic gifts that so often lie nestled within our own imperfections; they lose confidence, joy, the ability to take risks...and, sometimes, the ability to continue at all.

Tabletop with paints and chalks

How, then, do we cope with "fear of judgement" if perfectionism doesn't work, and grace-under-the-fire-of-criticism is part of our job description? What works for me, and so I pass it on to you, is to cultivate the fine art of acceptance:

The world is as it is, not as we wish it to be. Our art is what it is. We are who we are. And that's good enough. That's plenty good enough. In fact, that's everything.

Drawing table

Not everyone will understand/love/admire us, or appreciate what it is we're trying to do. Life is not The X Factor. We don't have to please the judges, or everyone on Twitter, or even every potential buyer of our work. We have to please ourselves. Accept ourselves. And to create the kind and quality of art that makes our own heart beat faster.

On my drawing table

Most of us in our teenage years worried endlessly about how others thought of us, how we fit into the world (or didn't), how we measured up. The mark of maturing is to let go of this worry, to stop looking at ourselves from the outside in; to settle, instead, deep inside our own psyches, our own bodies, our individuality, so that we can look at the world from the inside out, firmly rooted in the iconoclastic, imperfect beauty of the person (and thus the artist) that we are. sketch, Terri WindlingWe are human beings, not television screens running endless advertisements promoting Brand Me. In our consumer-focused world, we're becoming primed to promote and sell ourselves all the damned time: to count up the "Likes," and smile for the judges, and good-god-almighty this has to stop. It's wasting our time, it's crippling our self-esteem, and it has to stop.

So here's how to practice the art of acceptance: Accept, here and now, that we cannot control what the world will think of us or our work; it's a waste of time, of joy, and of good working hours to imagine that we can. We will work hard, we will strive, we will learn, we will grow; we will bring all of our intelligence, skill, life experience, courage, wit, heart, and discernment to the work-table ... and for this alone, it will all be worthwhile. For this alone, our work will be probably be "good"  -- but good as we ourselves measure the word, and as those we trust and admire measure it. We are responsible to ourselves and to our chosen community of peers, not to every single critic, reader, viewer, blogger, Tweeter, and self-appointed judge out there. We're responsible for the gifts we've been given; we're responsible for what we put out into the world; and we're responsible for being the artist we are...not the one that someone else (or our own Inner Critic) thinks we ought to be instead.

On my drawing table

"Close the door," urges Barbara Kingsolver (author of The Lacuna and other fine novels). "Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."

''Entering the quiet space''Raymond Chandler spoke in a similar vein when he explained his turn from screenplays back to writing novels: "[T]here comes a time when that which I write has to belong to me, has to be written alone and in silence, with no one looking over my shoulder, no one telling me a better way to write it. It doesn't have to be great writing, it doesn't even have to be terribly good, it just has to be mine."

It's not always easy to find that quiet space, however. Even if our physical workspace is private, we tend to carry a host of others along with us whenever we sit down to work. As I related in a previous post, the painter Philip Guston once described the ghosts who trailed him into his studio each day: family, colleagues, mentors, critics, friends, enemies, lovers, etc., each with their history, needs, and opinions, pressed tight around him, crowding the space. But then, as the painter got down to his work, the ghosts left the room again, one by one. On a good day, he said, I am finally alone; and on a really good day, even I leave the room.

A fascinating essay by Jia Tolentino has led me to wonder if finding that quiet, de-populated inner space that Kingsolver, Chandler, and Guston speak of is harder to do in the Internet age -- particularly for young writers and artists who never knew the world before: a world without the constant online Chorus of Many Voices, the ubiquitous soundtrack of our web-connected lives. Judgement is instant and endless these days: through Twitter RTs and Facebook Likes and comment columns overrun by readers who (unlike the gracious readers of this blog) can be quite fiercely judgmental indeed, often judging not only the art but its maker, as if they were one and the same. (The persistent conflation of the two -- of the artist and the art -- is somewhat alarming to older writers, like me, who did not grow up online.)


In her excellent book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro asks:

"Who do we write for? Our friends, enemies, ex-lovers? The vast reading public? Ourselves? I find that the more people who are in my head when I write, the less I am able to accomplish. It can get very busy in there. It can start to feel like a crowded subway during rush hour, just waiting for the doors to open. So I try to heed the advice of Kurt Vonnegut, who once said he wrote for an audience of one. The audience doesn't have to be a person you know. She doesn't even need to be alive and on the planet. Vonnegut wrote for his sister, who had died years earlier. It's not about sharing the work, but creating a connection....I write to a specific reader at a time. My audience of one, over the years has changed. In the beginning, it was my dead father. I longed to reach out to him, through time and space, to have him know the woman I was becoming. Then, sometimes, it was my mother. Every sentence I wrote felt like a plea. Please understand me. Later, it became my husband -- it still is. And now, my audience of one is also my son, in the hopes that someday, he will find his mother in the pages of her books."

Studio wall

It's a vital question to ask: Who do we write (or paint, or sculpt, or perform or otherwise create) for? And how does the Brave New World engendered by the Internet and social media affect our answer?

"I worry," muses Tolentino, "that the Internet makes us feel personally responsible to an audience, when we are responsible only to the people who love us -- or, to the people we want to be responsible to, which is one way to figure out who we really love."

The French actress Sarah Bernhardt said something rather similar one hundred years ago, so perhaps this isn't a such a new-fangled worry after all: "You should live for those who know and appreciate you. Who judge and absolve you and for who you have love and indulgence. The rest is merely the crowd, from whom one can only expect fleeting emotions, good or bad, which leave no trace."

sketch, Terri Windling

Do you have an audience of one, or a crowd? Do you think about the expectations of your audience when you are doing your work, and if so, how does this affect the process, for good or ill? This discussion carries on from a previous post ("Who do you write for?"), and I welcome your thoughts.

New bone

"The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself."   - Anna Quindlen

New bone 1

The video above is "That's Alright" by Laura Mvula (from Birmingham, UK), reigning queen of the art of self-acceptance. I highly recommend it the next time you feel adversely judged. Mvula's music is good medicine indeed!

There are additional quotes on the subject of judgement and acceptance tucked into the hidden picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)