Ditch the perfectionism…or not.

I was browsing in a bookshop recently when I came across Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. I’m a natural sceptic of self-help books and I’ve never been very good at taking instruction, often exhibiting a kind of dyslexia when instructed; I have turned left when asked by a driving instructor to turn right, and have asked for directions only for my mind to become non-stick as I nod back through the car window at a kindly local.
But a few things in this book caught my eye, and thankfully my wife pointed out a page in Psychologies magazine with a summary of the key points as selected by the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman.  One quote suggests that ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor’ and ‘ is one of the greatest obstacles to creativity, and to happiness in general.’  This translates practically into treating yourself with enough friendliness to persevere despite disliking what you’ve done so far.  In my own writing I tend to oscillate between wild enthusiasm (what I have just written is the best thing I’ve ever written) and despondent self-criticism.

Often I persevere and work hard at something that isn’t working, but often stop if I’m not getting anywhere. Lammott  suggests that most writers chronically compare their efforts with others polished results, despite the fact that even the greatest novels, paintings, poems and songs started life as what Lamott calls ‘shitty first drafts’.
I won’t be buying this book, but do think there is a place for books like this for those who can respond to them. I’ve collected advice and shared wisdom from poets and writers on my poetry quotes page where you will find a great quote from Eavan Bolan.



  1. Interesting blog – I think this is fairly common among writers. I’ve read a lot of literary biographies recently and two things that stick out as common themes are ‘perfectionism’ and ‘dogged determination’. My view is that perfectionism is helpful when it allows the writer to turn a critical eye on their work and spurs them on to revise and improve it – it underpins the urge to progress, to move forward. Conversely, excessive perfectionism can result in paralysis and a fear of failure.

    Nice poem on I,S&T btw.


  2. Thank you Zoe, nicely put. Also thanks for coment on my poem on I,S&T. Another version of this poem is on Agenda magazine Retrosectives Supplement (there is a link on the News page of this blog). I’m not sure which version is better and may never decide…


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