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.

Solstice Song: My Prayer for the Coming Year

Okay, it’s not a “prayer” in the traditional sense, but it is an expression of my desperate hope that we will begin to confront the cultural aspects that provoke violence and suppress healthy expressions of emotion. If you’re a musician, I was hearing a swing beat as I wrote this. If you’re not a musician, ignore that last statement and just read it as a poem. Maybe one day, if I can get my partner to record a melody to it, I’ll post it here. Happy Solstice and Merry Christmas.

“Solstice Song”

Here’s to hoping
That the night will turn to day–
That our tears will lead the way back home.

Here’s to believing
That there is more to life
Than the violence and strife we see.

In our grief may we find
A better frame of mind
Than to leave the whole world blind again.

Though the world seems torn apart,
If we keep an open heart,
We may see a way to start anew.

Here’s to dreaming
That love can heal the earth
And guide us to our birth in peace.

Here’s to living
The change we want to see;
We create our destiny ourselves.

Though today we mourn the dead
There’s still life for us ahead.
We can break the cyclic thread if we choose.

Let us toast to new beginnings,
For they follow every ending.
Hope and love are now ascending with our hearts.

Befriending my Shadow Totem

Spiders

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with them. I’ve always been fascinated by them…from a distance. I love pictures of spiders. I think they’re awesome in books. My heart thrills when I see them behind glass where they can’t get to me. But up until recently, if you put me in the same room with one, I made Ron Weasley look brave.

When I first moved into my apartment, the porch looked like a freaking horror movie. The ceiling was a blanket of spider webs with dozens of spiders sitting up there. I had to cross under them in order to get in my door. Then inside, they were everywhere. I would have done anything to get rid of them. And oh, did they love to drop in on me! Literally! When I wasn’t hunting down and killing the spiders in my apartment, they were descending their silky threads from the ceiling trying to land on my head.

I’m not a bug-killing person. I have a strong empathy with the little critters. I used to catch bumble bees and let them loose in my room as a pet. I’m more likely to put a hornet outside than kill it. And the one time that I decided to experiment with salt on a slug, I ended up crying and begging the poor thing to forgive me for hurting it (I’m still bitter towards the cartoons that portrayed it as anything but a traumatic event for slugs and snails). So the fact that I hated spiders enough to drown one slowly in a steady stream of Lysol bothered me.

About a year ago, I started researching spiders, seeking for some way to change how I viewed them. It didn’t take long to identify the spider as my shadow totem. I’m far from an expert on totems, but that one was pretty obvious. I’m probably more comfortable in a pit of snakes than I am with a single spider, yet I find myself inconceivably drawn to them in every aspect except physical proximity.

The key to shadow totems, as with any shadow work, is that you have to face them. They have powerful things to teach you about yourself, but you can’t learn from them as long as you’re running from them. So I forced myself to stop killing the spiders when I saw them and started trying to understand what it is about their nature that speaks to me. So far, there are three major areas:

  • Creativity
    Spiders have long been symbols of creativity. They’re artists, creating intricate and beautiful displays every night. Fittingly, there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind after meeting me that I’m a creative soul. I love creating things. I love the creative process. Oh, but I also fear it. I fear not being good enough. I fear not being able to finish. I fear it being worthless. So while I value creation as much as I regard spiders, fear often prevents me from experiencing either. But what the spider teaches me is that it’s okay to create something that will not last, something that isn’t perfect. A web, as beautiful as it is, usually doesn’t survive longer than a day. It’s not designed to. I might ask myself why bother creating something beautiful that will only be destroyed, but then I might as well ask myself, “why not?” I don’t know why spiders create webs with such beauty. Surely other methods would be equally effective. But I like to think that maybe they just get some freaking joy out of making their daily tasks beautiful. It challenges me, can I do the same?
  • Attraction
    Spiders also symbolize the power of attraction. They are such crafty little hunters because they do not hunt. Their prey comes to them. They pick a spot that they like, set up their webs, and wait patiently for what they trust will come along. Now, as I get into this, I’m not saying that I can prevent people from harming me. Those that are intent on doing harm will find a way to do it. But I have learned that there is a lot of boundary-setting that can happen with my own intentions. I can attract quite a bit of emotional bullshit to myself by simply being too scared to say no. If I don’t see myself as worth sticking up for, I’m not going to attract too many friends or acquaintances who respect me. But as I stand up for myself and see myself as someone worth standing up for, the relationships I build are going to be with people who value me as I value myself. Again, not an easy lesson because I have a really hard time saying no and setting boundaries with those that I care about. My default is to assume that their happiness is more important than my own, thus allowing my own needs to be overlooked. The fear of conflict has a tendency to make me deny my own desires in favor of “keeping the peace,” but how can I expect others to care about or even know about my needs and desires if I myself am too afraid to express it? We’ll see how that continues to develop as I learn to set boundaries.
  • Fate
    Lastly, and perhaps slightly more metaphorically, spiders teach me that I can be the weaver of my own destiny, the master of my fate. I do not have to be at the mercy of external circumstances. I’m not at the whim of some puppet master. My life is mine and no one else’s. I always have a choice. I actually do believe in fate, but like Rilke, I believe that fate comes from inside me. So long as I think it’s outside of me, I will react blindly to the cues of others. But when I recognize that it is not the external circumstances that determine my choices but my internal compass, I can break away from the Pavlovian response cycle and choose to forge a new path and, by doing so, choose a new destiny. This is probably the one aspect of spider that doesn’t scare me. It thrills me. I want to be my own fate, to write my own story. But that was not a power I could recognize immediately. It was one I could only come to by facing the shadows and befriending my shadow totem.

Lately, I find myself smiling when I see a spider and wondering how I’m going to put its lessons to use. I welcome them in my home, and have discovered the delight of them keeping me free of other pesky bugs. And while I haven’t gotten to the point of wanting to touch them, now if I see one dangling above my head, I don’t scream. I’m sure they have many more lessons to teach me, about things that I fear in myself and about powers I didn’t know I had.