Recently I’ve been working on reorganizing my blog, which has had me unearthing many old posts that I had all but forgotten about. (Northernwords is already 5 years old–time flies!)
As I began to re-read some of my old posts, immediately a slew of berating thoughts began to fill my head. I picked apart every sentence I had written, every picture I had taken, and wanted to do it all over.
How could I have ever wanted to share a blog that was so awful?
Then after several moments of scathing self-criticism, I stopped, horrified at what my mind was doing. Here were the words I had written with such passion during one of the most meaningful and amazing experiences of my life. And rather than looking back with appreciation and love for the girl who set off to take on the world, all I was focusing on was the negative and everything I wanted to change.
It was a pretty shitty thing to do, really.
Yet I know the phenomenon of hating on your past self is not unique to me, and is actually quite a common thing to do.
I’ve seen it when looking back on old photos, and people cringing at pictures of their old selves and using words like “embarrassing” and “disgusting” when confronted with such memories.
It happens when thinking about decisions made 5, 10, or 20 years ago, and using words like “stupid” or “ridiculous” to describe every past decision, from the big ones down to how we chose to dress.
It happens almost all the time, really. And it’s sad.
Now, I’m not against self-deprecating humor. I think having a chuckle about that time you thought green spiked hair was The Greatest Thing Ever is a good and normal part of reminiscing on the past.
But this post is not about the normal, occasional bouts of self-deprecating humor. Rather, I’m talking about the tendency to default to scathing criticism and embarrassment of your past self because your present self has grown, and how it can wreak havoc on your creative life.
Creativity is a never-ending process
The tendency to look down on your past self and past work can be particularly strong for creative people. Recently I attended a writer’s conference, and one of the guest author speakers addressed this exact topic. “Your work will often feel unfinished because we are an unfinished people.”
By unfinished people, she meant that we are constantly learning, growing, and improving.
Being ever-evolving is a beautiful part of being human, but it can be a hindrance when unfinished-ness and perfectionism collide: putting down a project can feel difficult because you’re constantly coming up with new ways to edit and improve your work.
As a writer, I feel this particularly with story planning. The novel I’m currently working in has been a work in progress for several years. I have about ten different versions of the first chapter, because as time goes on I keep getting new and better ideas about how to open the book, new characters to add in, and new themes to explore.
But when is enough enough?
Sometimes, it never is. And that’s why it’s important to learn the difference between something actually having issues and needless improvements that are the result of developing as an artist, and consequently becoming more critical of your past work.
If you’re growing and improving at a rapid rate, your work may never feel finished. But don’t let that hold you back from actually completing something and sending it out into the world, because that’s a growth process all its own that you don’t want to miss out on.
In her book Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert also addresses the idea of constantly improving, and how it can be a hindrance for writers. “A good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never, ” she said.
She goes on to talk about some of her early writing, likening a particular book to a crooked house: a little wonky in places, but still able to hold together and make a place you’d want to spend some time.
If you’re putting in a good faith effort to your creative pursuit, whatever it is, most of your early-day, crooked-house projects are a gift. While it can be easy to look down on where you came from, each piece of work you do is a learning experience and a stepping stone to newer and better things. My blog wouldn’t be where it is today without all of the early posts, and the early posts wouldn’t be where they were without essays and stories written as a teenager and child.
Heck, some of my writing that I would no longer consider “great writing” has launched me further ahead than I would have ever thought possible.
Learn from your mistakes, but don’t criticize the gift of learning, and don’t make fun of the hard work and genuine effort that you’ve put into improving your craft.
And know that every time you hit “publish” on that blog post or share that photo or upload that video of your singing it’s an act of bravery: you are choosing to commit and put yourself out there rather than waiting for the elusive moment of perfection that will never come.
You are choosing to embrace the beauty and tension and occasional wonkyness that comes with being an unfinished person. And that’s a good and courageous thing to do.