A Writer’s Cure for Perfection
by Laura Didyk

Most of us expect a lot of ourselves — at work, as a parent or spouse, with our creative projects. And we should. On the right day, expecting a lot can lead to accomplishing more than we might otherwise; we rise gracefully to the occasions of our sometimes-complicated lives. But on the wrong day, or during a challenging time, our attempts to rise fall flat, we fail at helping others, we say the wrong things, we don’t show up in the way we’d like. We are messy and human and imperfect. In this essay, writer Laura Didyk comes face-to-face with the challenge of her own expectations — and a whole lot of spiders.

Several years ago, I was awarded a month-long writing residency at an arts center in rural Virginia. My sole job while there was to make progress on the book I’d begun six months earlier at another residency. No one would be checking my work. I would not have to present evidence of my productivity. This is what residencies like this are for: with the gift of time, free of domestic distractions, and inspired by conversations with other writers and artists who are there to work on their own creative projects, you are supposed to make progress.

I’ve never been much of a goal-setter, so just how far along I’d get in Virginia at my residency was not something I’d discussed with myself. My internal sense of time and my predictions of what it will take — emotionally and psychologically — to accomplish any task, artistic or otherwise, rarely line up with reality anyway. So I just don’t bother.

As my residency month approached, I did, however, imagine a goal-oriented version of myself at the center: I am at my desk in my clean, light-filled studio, a room rich with the history of all the writers who have written in that very same space. My window looks out onto an idyllic pastoral scene of cows grazing on the green open land — just as it appears in a photo on the website. I am focused, free of self-doubt, full of inspiration. I am writing, writing, writing, enjoyment my middle name.

In other words, I would be an entirely different person in Virginia: Instead of the 45 minutes I could barely manage once a week at home, I’d write hours a day. And the more I wrote, the more momentum I’d have. I’d be an unstoppable creative force, with bionic writing powers and stamina like I’d never known.

When I got to the residency, I did have a big wooden desk, much like the one in my imagination. But instead of a light-filled studio, I’d been assigned one side of a duplex. It wasn’t very clean, and downstairs, where my desk was, had a sliding glass door that looked out onto the center’s parking lot. Instead of grass and cows, I saw concrete and cars. And each night I was visited by local wildlife: palm-sized spiders that crept into my studio space by way of the gap under the utility closet door — first one, then another, then another, and another, until there was a whole nuclear family, and then their relatives, whole generations gathering on the carpet on the edge of my studio — the brown funky rug camouflaging their brown, slightly furry bodies.

If the arachnid invasion wasn’t enough, my romantic relationship wasn’t going well, and the nightly calls with my boyfriend would leave me an emotional mess, requiring recovery time.

I felt tired, anxious, and completely unsure of my abilities. What was the matter with me?

I did manage to write, which now seems commendable. I’d write two, sometimes three, hours a day. But I wrote mostly in small bursts, never all at once, so I couldn’t find my stride. I made little progress, it seemed, when it came to page count. I was not bionic, nor unstoppable. I was eating a lot of Milano cookies, had zero momentum, and enjoyment had fled the scene entirely. I was obsessed with the spiders and the fading boyfriend, when I should have been obsessed, I told myself, with my book, with what I came here to do. I felt tired, anxious, and completely unsure of my abilities. What was the matter with me?

My miniscule two- to three-hour writing days, made-up of drive-by writing sessions, paragraphs written on my way out the door to buy more cookies, were my little secret for the first couple of weeks. When a fellow resident would ask at lunch how my writing was going, I’d just nod and say “pretty good” or “fine” or “as good as expected.” Lies, all of them. Things were pretty bad, they were far from fine, and I had expected much much more of myself — too much, it turns out. I could feel the onset of that kind of disappointment that likes to set up camp in our souls, a homesteading kind that won’t permit us to wander very far from camp in the direction of what we want.

One evening, waiting for the dining room doors to open for dinner, and feeling the daily weight of not having accomplished much, a well-known writer who I’d been too intimidated to talk to asked how my time was going. How was I finding the residency?

It was a warmer question, more sincere and inclusive than the dreaded question about my writing. “I’m not finding it,” I heard myself say. “I’m not writing enough. I think I might be wasting my time.” I felt my throat start to close and stopped myself before I cried in front of this stranger whose work I admired.

“How much are you writing all told?” he asked. “By the end of each day, how much time have you spent at your desk?”

Surprising myself, I told him the truth.

He scoffed and half-laughed, “You’re upset about that?” he asked. “Who wants to write more than that? You write, and then you go live your life. You be a person.” As we walked through the open doors of the dining room, he shrugged his shoulders, and added, “Writing is not easy.”

As I reached for a plate and decided which greasy, southern fare I’d pile onto it, I felt the weight and dread leave my body with such suddenness — I hadn’t realized just how heavy it had been. The idea that writing was hard was of course not new, but I’d never let it apply to me. And at that moment, I did. Small doses of self-forgiveness could be a good thing.

Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between expecting a lot of ourselves and expecting too much.

Writing is hard. Believing in the narrative road you’ve chosen to go down, attempting on a daily basis to avert self-doubt, to write around it, write through it. To believe that what you’re doing is worth doing, that what you’re writing will, when it’s finished, be worth reading. It’s hard in the way that anything we care about is hard.

Our self-worth is unavoidably linked to these things — our work, our relationships, our children, our creative lives. And it’s especially difficult when we expect more of ourselves than is healthy … and most of us do.

Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between expecting a lot of ourselves and expecting too much. When we expect a lot of ourselves, we aim for a slightly higher than normal human amount of goodness, grace, or success, and we often achieve it. If we fall short, we carry on, we try again. When we expect too much, we aim for perfection and we always fall short. We can practically hear disappointment hammering the tent stakes in, firing up the camping stove, unfurling its ancient sleeping bag.

During the last two weeks of my residency, I didn’t magically transform. I was still messy and human and imperfect. I was still eating cookies. But I kept reminding myself that we all have moods, emotional highs and lows, and varying levels of energy and attention. Some of us have views of parking lots. I was able to orchestrate a small but perceptible shift, a softening in my attitude toward myself. When I’d feel the steely hand of expecting-too-much reach out, I’d replay the conversation I had with the well-known writer outside the dining room. I’d remember that writing is not easy. I left the residency with two and a half new chapters, and a failed relationship that desperately needed to end. Although it wasn’t what I’d expected or hoped, it was what happened. And it was enough.

Laura Didyk is a writer, editor, and illustrator — the image accompanying this essay is hers.

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  • Emma Lu Draper says:

    Thank you. I write and write but not a book or an article of greatness, I do enjoy writing my thoughts and feelings about experiences, adventure, family trivia in my blog and sending it out for others to enjoy or not enjoy. Yes, writing is hard, but I feel the drive to write. And I do it just because!
    Again thanks for sharing.
    Emma Lu Draper

  • Maureen McNeil says:

    Hi Laura,
    It is so nice to hear from a professional writer about to struggle to create. I am a visual artists and writer also. I’ve always wanted to attend a writers residency, but never have had the opportunity. Most of my adult life, I’ve worked full time and parented, and for three years I also worked toward a masters degree, and for a year and a half of that time, I also worked with a literary agent on a novel! Sometimes, the more I do, the more I can do– but that is hard to keep up for long. Life is calmer now, and I am able to write at three hours a day, four-five days a week. One motivating factor that empowers me, which I share with my writing students, is that writing is an act of freedom, and we have to practice freedom in order to be free. Also, every word is a place holder until the first draft is complete. That said, writing a book for me means writing a lot of drafts. Some days I feel lucky with words, and other days not. But I see writing as a good struggle, and I can’t give it up. Best of luck with your writing!

  • Carole Anne Aube says:

    The last line resonates with me – That it was enough … we are enough when we are born – just as we were. Then we spend our adult life shedding the layers of doubt about our wholeness and worthiness that came from our families, schooling at every level starting with pre school, our friends and partners. If we are successful at doing this there is limited time to enjoy our new mind space about ourselves. The quicker we can get to awareness of our self doubts the sooner we are able to move through them and enjoy our lives. Your chance encounter was a unblocker for you. Cheers!

  • Cheri Elmore says:

    At best, writing reaches out to the spirit of another person and softly docks, whispering something into their soul that means “you’re ok…you are perfectly imperfect…you are on your way.” I rarely take the time to read much of anything – lots of life always happening, right? But I read you today. I heard you. And even though you don’t know me, you connected with me. And I connected with you. Heart to heart, human to human, humanity manifested at its finest. Words and hands are two of the most powerful gifts we are given. Thank you for using your words and your hands for good works. Praying your life continues to unfold in such a beautiful way my sister!!

    • Laura Didyk says:

      Thank you so much, Cheri. It is the best any artist/writer can hope for–to know you’ve reached someone and made a connection. This is how the art (and the artist!) stays alive. Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to respond in such a heartfelt and sincere way. best to you!

  • Gabriela says:

    I used to refer to my writing stints as going into the isolation tank. I came to terms that if I wrote 2-3 pages a day – I had had a good day. I might go back the next day and completely redraft it, but the important part was getting that thought on paper. What was probably the most difficult part was leaving the writing bursts and interacting with other people after being in the complete solitude that is required to write. My emotions would be all over the place, etc. I wasn’t really sure what to say or do because the interactions were limited during those time frames of intense writing. So Brava! 2-3 hours a day even if sporadic is amazing. The writer who spoke to you knows what he is talking about. You have to live your life in between the moments of personal giving which is what writing is. You have to recharge that battery or there is nothing to write about, after all.

    • Laura Didyk says:

      Thank you for your comment. 2-3 pages a day is GREAT! It’s nearly impossible for me to do 2-3 hours a day unless I am blessed with a residency like the one I wrote about. But I do try to work on my book at least a few times a week. I have been hosting a branch of the national organization Shut Up & Write. Every Thursday morning a small group of us meet in a local cafe, set the timer for an hour, and each work individually (and quietly!) on our projects (most of us bring headphone for our own soundtracks). Then we “break” at the buzzer, groan, and laugh, then eat breakfast together. While it’s not how I’ve always liked to write, it’s become a great antidote to my work-from-home life. Also a nice way to get some social time in (with people who understand the difficult process). Keep going with your amazing 2-3 pages a day–knowing this will embolden me to do more!

  • Constance Bradford ERYT 500 says:

    I write poetry. Sometimes I face an empty page and the juice just doesn’t show up. Other times I’m driving and pull off the road to make a line or two that overcomes me. I’m beginning to accept both the empty page and the inspiration
    Thanks for your writing.

    • Laura Didyk says:

      Amen, Constance. I often approach my writing practice with some amount of dread, but if I keep writing (even if I’m whining a little), I can move past it (or at least accept it). I love the image of pulling off the road to write a line or two!

  • Sandy says:

    Thank you Laura! Several years ago I left the corporate professional world in pursuit of happiness, leaving on the table a six-figure salary enriched with benefits and other perks. People might have thought she made it, and I was expecting too much of myself. At the end of my employment, my health was poor. Fast forward, today I’m the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever been. I have the flexibility to choose the projects I want to work on, when I want to work, and how I want to work. A client recently said to me, It’s okay to be the early riser who gives her best 4-hours of work in the morning. I operate the same way, so we have something in common. There’s nothing wrong with this. Some people go the workplace to be there all-day and they’re not able to deliver half of what you’re delivering in your timeframe. Suddenly, I felt this weight come off my shoulders. I’ve never been the same.

    • Laura Didyk says:

      Hi Sandy,
      Thank you for replying to my piece! I am with you on this. It was once a dream to “work from home” and not do the 9-5 routine. I’ve never been good at it. And while doing it this way isn’t easy, and there have been some financially scary times, the trade off for me has been entirely worth it. Without my creative life (writing, art), it’s really no life. And it also has pushed me to stop making excuses for *not* creating (w/in reason of course–per my essay!). 🙂 Happy for you that you’ve found this new way of working, and you are able to have such a healthy perspective on it. I’m still working on that, but it’s much better than it used to be.

    • Camilla says:

      This is so absolutely true. I am so glad that I am at a point in my life where I give four hours of heartfelt effort and then am free to do other things with my day. Can’t believe what my work schedule was formerly. I wish this for everyone. Thank you for this article and these comments: it inspires me to work on in a more grateful manner.

  • Margaret says:

    Definitely I expect to much of myself. I am ridiculously entrenched, in the morning I write my to-do list which also carries forward my list from the day before! Addressing this by writing has given me a clue as to how to correct my situation. My new intention is to keep a master list of what needs to be done and choose which ones to accomplish.

    • Laura Didyk says:

      HI Margaret,
      Thank you for your comment. “Ridiculously entrenched” is a marvelous way of putting it! There are so many approaches to dealing with the to-do list that researching them becomes its own to-do list. 🙂 LifeWork will be hosting Tiffany Dufu in April in the Women Together program. Her book DROP THE BALLis supposed to be about the psychological and emotional (and practical) ins and outs of prioritizing ourselves over our lists. But don’t add that to your to-do list! I totally relate, in any case, to the entrenchment. Progress not perfection, as the saying goes! good luck…!

  • cathy says:

    My husband and I flew to his niece’s wedding over the weekend. We’ve been together over 7 years but he hasn’t been good about visiting family even though his family love him and he has a great time with them. I believe it’s because at bottom he doesn’t believe he matters. I’ve never been around that much of his family before and never met most of them. I’m in the helping profession and love working one on one with my patients. It’s not easy connecting and even less so when everybody’s crammed into the house and all talking at once. But then i feel i fail in connecting and am too ashamed to say anything. I expect too much, I think out of myself, and then I feel ashamed and believe I’ve failed. So yes, I can relate.

    • Laura Didyk says:

      Hi Cathy,
      So glad you could find something to relate to here. All I can say about family is: IT’S COMPLICATED. That’s often as far as I get with that — in the sense that i try to not beat myself up too much when it comes to that area of my life. It’s complicated and heroic to manage, love, embrace, and take care of one’s self in the context of our families. I don’t know anyone who does it perfectly, that’s for sure. Thanks for reading and for your comment!

  • Shonda Moralis says:

    Thank you! Your heartfelt sharing is just what I needed this very day. Much like you describe, the challenge of writing is understandable and worthy of compassion for everyone else, while largely messy, frustrating, and self-doubt- inducing when applied to myself. Such a helpful reminder to offer myself some compassion and acceptance as well.

    • Laura Didyk says:

      Hi Shonda,
      Thank you for reading and for your comment. It’s true, I know, that we rarely demand from others what we demand from ourselves (in the least, we are sure nicer about it when it comes to friends and loved ones). I hope the self-compassion and -acceptance reminder has stayed with you. Thank you again!

  • Barbara R. Roth says:

    I work as a therapist five days a week. I am intensely focused for hours in helping others work out their emotional challenges and life stresses. And although I still enjoy my work I am often exhausted by the end of the day. And I still find it hard to give myself a break and not feel as if I have to do more and be creative when I have time off. Thanks for reminding me that the work I do is difficult and I need time to relax and do nothing sometimes.

    • Laura Didyk says:

      Hi Barbara,
      The pressure we put on ourselves can definitely be exhausting, speaking from experience. I also know that “doing nothing,” despite what my high expectations sometimes tell me, is actually doing something important. I will be much more available to my creative life (and to myself and those I love) when I take those moments of no-expectation down time. So, thank *you* for that reminder!

  • Cathie Pawlicki says:

    Self expectations that are pretty outrageous hound me . I make and effort to distinguish between thoughts and feelings, but sometimes sorting out is difficult when anxious. What I have been trying to do is not “set myself up” by first picking a task that is quite simple. My confidence builds as I achieve the simple part and THEN I can think about the more complex aspect. If I don’t do this I know I will become overwhelmed with self-deprecation and feeling incapable of doing anything. I’m well educated but it certainly does not support me emotionally

    • Laura Didyk says:

      Hi Cathie,
      That sounds like such a sound and reasonable approach to building confidence (and marking/recognizing tiny victories). I’m going to take note! And you are right, being able to understand things intellectually is often a separate matter–understanding it in our bodies (and hearts?) is really the key.
      Best to you and thanks for reading!

  • Dr. AnnRené Joseph says:

    Thank you for this wonderful reflection and for me-a validation of the feelings and challenges that come with writing. I have recently finished the first draft of a book I intentionally wrote over 25 months of daily ‘showing up to write’ -no matter what! Yes, as you say-writing is hard-especially when we are surrounded by life and living-and even when given the opportunity to write freely, as per your reflection. Thank you for sharing. Your honest sharing was a gift.

    • Laura Didyk says:

      Hi AnnRene,
      Thank you for comments! I remember the shock at my *very first* writing residency–where everything was taken care of. All meals, all dishes, even cleaning service in my room. Lunch was delivered to my studio in a picnic basket! Up until that point I thought: If I just had *more time* I’d be able to write with ease. It was shocking to discover that while time may be part of the struggle, it’s only part of it. And there are understandable reasons why more people don’t write books! I wish you goodness on your writing path!

      • Dr. AnnRené Joseph says:

        Thank you, Laura. You inspire. I appreciate your kind and empathic reply. I am making daily progress at editing and intend to self publish a first edition for my immediate family by Christmas 2018 for feedback and some initial readings.