The Art of Intentional Imperfection

As I’ve been getting acquainted with my creativity again, I’ve been thinking about my own perfectionism. Somewhere along the way, I picked up this silly little idea that creativity is about making art…and art needs to be perfect.

Perhaps it’s related to my own personality.

Perhaps it’s related to something in society that conveys the idea that only good art is worth our attention.

Perhaps it’s related to something I learned from my brother or parents about how to get affirmation and praise.

Perhaps it’s related to the cult, where I was taught that anything less than perfection is a sin.

Where it comes from matters less than how it’s affected my life. For almost a decade, I refused to sing in public, even for things like celebrating a birthday. I’ve shied away from playing my violin if others are around to hear, especially if I am trying to learn a new song. I’ve avoided trying out new hobbies that I am interested in for fear that I’ll be unable to do them well enough to warrant the time, money, and effort put in.

And I’ve come to this realization—perfection is the death of creativity.

An artist friend of mine once told me that if I’m freezing up in front of a canvas, I should intentionally make a mark on the canvas because it will free me from the pressure of making my painting perfect. I don’t know if that is a universal idea that beginning artists learn or if that was her version of overcoming the “blank page” syndrome, but it works!

There’s something about setting out to intentionally be imperfect that holds a special (magical) power.

When I approach music, writing, painting—basically anything that requires a modicum of creativity—with the intention to “create art,” I find myself blinded by the pressure to make good art.

Not just good art—great art! Gallery-worthy, publishing-worthy, concert-worthy art.

And it’s downright debilitating because I usually can’t hope to be that good, especially not the first time I attempt something.

However, when I set out to be intentionally imperfect, something frees up in me. Suddenly the music or writing or whatnot becomes an avenue of play…and that’s really what creativity is about.

Creativity came effortlessly to me (and most others) as a child because I had permission to have fun, make mistakes, and explore without needing to have a finished project that measured up to some standard.

My first poem consisted of rhyming nonsense words that I put together because I liked the sound and rhythm even though it didn’t “make sense.” I was thrilled with that poem even though when I showed it to others they didn’t understand.

There is a small-scale effort to glorify imperfection. The whole “it’s the flaws that make it beautiful, special, etc. etc.”

And sometimes that is very true. I have stumbled upon some happy accidents by making what seemed to be a mistake into something that added character and uniqueness to what I was creating.

But trying to rewrite imperfection as a quirky form of perfection misses the point, I think.

When I’ve been playing with my watercolors lately, there have certainly been times when I was thrilled with what came out of an unplanned action…but there have also been times when I groaned, crumpled up my painting, and started over.

And that was okay!

Because the magic of intentional imperfection is that even if it turns out to be “trash,” that’s not failure. If I’m having fun, learning more about the medium of creativity I’m using, and allowing myself to play—I’m getting exactly the “product” I need.

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Shaking to Breathe: Shakers and the Suffocation of Perfection

I’ve always been intrigued by the Shakers as a religious movement. On one hand, their way of life has a strange appeal. The way they provided for themselves from their own land, created their own medicines, and lived in seeming communal harmony sounds…idyllic. The idealized version of them is mesmerizing in a society of broken communities and hectic life.

However, underneath the superficial fascination has always lingered a certain kind of sadness for me—the same sadness that I get when I read about the mass suicides of Jonestown.

It’s the sadness of a system dying out.

The Shakers didn’t have the violent implosion of the People’s Temple. There are still three members living; however, like the white rhinoceros, the Shakers are only death away from extinction. It’s a movement that is slowly asphyxiating in a system that leaves no room for breathing.

While the majority of people focus on and stop at the picturesque way of life that is preserved in history books, I’ve always seen the death throes that followed. It seemed incongruous. If they had achieved “utopia” as so many claim, how could they die out?

When I found out there was a Shaker museum near where we were staying on vacation, I couldn’t resist visiting. You could say it was a morbid fascination born of a curiosity to see what a non-violent cult looks like when it expires.

It wasn’t like visiting other historic places. There was no sense of life having passed through and moved on, leaving just relics behind. I got the sense that life hadn’t moved on at all in their buildings. It had just . . . stopped. The energy in the rooms was one of quiet desperation. The perfection—the symmetry—practically screamed in pain to me.

I thought as a perfectionist that I would fall in love with it, but I just wanted to cry.

I didn’t see beauty in the perfection. I saw the erasure of individuality. They had obliterated the identifying marks of a person, a room, a chair. In a way, they had achieved the purpose of perfection…

I had never really thought about the difference between perfection and quality before. They had seemed to coincide. Good quality objects should be as near to perfect as possible, right?

I don’t think so anymore.

Visiting the former Shaker settlement was like a rebirth for me, but not in the way they would have liked. I left craving imperfection, chaos, individuality, and art like never before.

Afterwards as we wandered around some local pottery shops, I gravitated towards the “seconds,” marveling over how beautiful they were—still good quality, functional items but with something that made them far more valuable to me than the “firsts.”

I knew that the flawed pieces were completely unique.

It’s not a luxury that I’ve granted myself in the past. While I might have subconsciously appreciated the individuality of artisan works or simply not cared about the flaws that I couldn’t find, I would have never considered that my own mistakes in my creative process could be considered gifts rather than blemishes.

I wouldn’t have valued them as an expression of my unique humanity.

Up until now, I have been trying to teach the perfectionist side of me that it’s okay to make mistakes. The world won’t end if I drop a stitch on a knitting project. Nothing bad will happen if I accidentally spell a word wrong. No one will punish me for burning supper or forgetting to return a library book.

It’s a start, but I don’t want to stop there. I’m starting to see that it’s more than permissible to make mistakes; it’s beautiful to be imperfect. It’s creative. It’s human. It’s the way we instill messages and stories in our work and the way we grow. Without it, there’s no breath in our process; there is no life.