About ten years ago I got shingles, a disease with which I was unfamiliar until it began appearing on my forehead above my right eye. I was diagnosed on a Saturday by an eye doctor who, by whatever logic, believed that the only reason a healthy young man like me could ever get shingles is if he had AIDS.
I was prescribed an anti-viral medicine, whose primary side effect was sustained nausea. I then spent a sleepless night in my bed, staring down my mortality and feeling vaguely sick to my stomach. At about three in the morning, I had a visitation.
I had asked myself, or anyone who was listening, why I was sick, and a voice immediately answered, “Because you think you have to be perfect!”
“No,” I replied. “That’s not true—”
“Yes it is!”
I allowed that maybe it was, and recovered surprisingly quickly. On Monday, I learned from my internist that lots of healthy people get shingles, but fortunately, by that time, the work of the disease had already been done.
There isn’t a worse disease for a writer to suffer from than perfectionism. Once infected you sit down at your desk every day with the sole objective of “getting it right.” The pain of shingles is nothing compared to the self-torture of getting your work “right.” It is like working for a capricious dictator, pleased with your efforts one day, disgusted by them the next.
I used to think the worst part of trying to get my work right was the sheer Sisyphean impossibility of it. There was no right, of course, and so I could spend all my life if I so chose chasing some shadow always a stride ahead of me. However, merely not being able to do something is annoying, but not painful.
The only pain I have ever known is the absence of love. In trying to get it right, I required myself to cut off from the actual source of my creative work, a source that knows no right or wrong, only the pleasure of allowing that which I desire through in the clearest form possible. When I looked at what I had written and called it bad, I was actually mourning my time spent outside the stream of love.