Waiting for It: People-Pleasing, Perfectionism, and Art
Today I had the incredible honor of watching from Facebook as one of my best friends from college delivered his graduation lecture for his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. It was one of those moments where things come full circle in your relationship with someone—eleven years ago, I presented my capstone project for my undergraduate creative writing degree as he looked on from the front row. He also came to a pretty insane party at my apartment that night to celebrate, but that’s a story for another time. The point is that it’s a real blessing to have a close friend to share your writing with and celebrate each other’s accomplishments. This man has profoundly influenced me both as a writer and in my walk with Christ, and it’s a privilege to be able to share in his amazing creative work.
Here we are celebrating at the conclusion of my capstone presentation. This is the joy and community that I wish for all writers to feel.
During the lecture, my friend asked a question that I’ve been thinking about for the last few hours and which I want to explore a bit here. He asked the audience to consider and write down what things were standing in their way of becoming the writers they could and want to be. There was also this extremely fun activity where all the participants balled up the piece of paper they wrote their obstacles on, threw them to the other side of the room, and had everyone pick up someone else’s paper as a symbolic understanding that everyone struggles with deeply rooted trauma and insecurity, but obviously, with me being in Ohio and the event taking place in Georgia, I couldn’t do that. But I did write something down. Here’s what I wrote:
I wish I could stop thinking about other people.
I’ve had a real problem with perfectionism since about the eighth grade. I handle things relatively better as an adult, but recently, as I’ve started working as a professional writer and am fighting some battles with my fiction project, I’ve become aware of just how much this issue continues to affect my writing. I get scared a lot about not meeting other people’s standards and most of all, being left behind while others move ahead. Several of my friends in the last few months have published novels or longer works of fiction, my primary genre. I’m completely thrilled about this. These are people, like my friend I mentioned earlier, who I’ve seen grow as people and artists over the years, whose early drafts of those now published projects I read in graduate workshops and heard them read at open mic nights. It’s exciting to see their progress. But then I look at my novel, the same one I’ve been writing and rewriting for three years and still can’t get right, and I sometimes feel left in the dust. And honestly, it instigates a creative paradox that causes me to be unable to move forward.
There’s a moment in the Gospel of John that I always think of when I deal with stuff like this. After His resurrection, Jesus and His disciples have just had breakfast by the sea, and Jesus has spiritually restored Peter after his denial of Him. He also tells Peter that he will suffer and die for his faith. Then Peter (being Peter) asks Jesus whether John will suffer the same fate. Jesus lovingly rebukes Peter for this remark, saying,
“If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22).
I hear Jesus’ words in my head often when I begin imagining other people’s thoughts about me or my work, or when I start comparing my accomplishments to those of others: “If I have willed that ______ publish a book at this time, what is that to you? You follow me.” I constantly have to remind myself as a writer that God has a different journey in mind for me than others of my fellow artists, one that will result in the perfect work that He wants me to create.
I was reminded a couple of months ago of just how good He is to meet my artistic and professional needs, and even how He understands the way I relate to art in this respect. After a situation out of anyone’s control left me without college courses to teach over the summer, I chose to leave teaching and look for professional writing work that would allow me to actually use my MFA. I applied for several jobs and even went on two interviews, both of which resulted in closed doors. I was deeply disappointed. But the day after I learned that I had been rejected for the job I most wanted, a manager at a creative marketing firm called and asked if I would be willing to come for an interview. I left the interview feeling confident and excited about the possibility of joining the team, but I also knew the dangers of getting my hopes up. I didn’t expect to hear a decision from them until the following week.
Two days later, I was on my way to Planet Fitness for a workout. “Wait for It” from Hamilton was playing, a song that creator Lin-Manuel Miranda intended to speak to those who feel that they are being left in the dust while others move ahead. At the end of the song, the vocals cut out on the line “I’m willing to—” and muted vocals finish “—wait for it” as the song concludes. At this exact moment in the song, the phone rang. It was the person I primarily interviewed with formally offering me the job.
The point of this story is that as Philippians 1:6 declares, God is faithful to complete the good work He begins in us. I know that the primary context of this verse refers to our salvation, which we must “work out […] with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) as we come to know the Lord better and remain in awe of how He works in and through us. However, I also believe this applies to the ways God allows us to use our gifts in our artistic and professional lives. He has a plan, and He will not abandon it, even when it may seem like He has. He will always give us the best thing for us, and it often, as it was in this case, is better than our own desires. Like Miranda says, we have to be willing to wait for it.
Right now, this image is what I have as the watch face on my Apple Watch. I wear it as a reminder that when I create, I am doing so for the Lord. Of course, I also do it for my professional team at work and for my own joy in creating. But ultimately, He has given me the opportunity and He gets the credit. There is no room for perfectionism when I work for someone who loves me perfectly and has and will give me everything I need, and by His grace, even things I want. Ultimately, while people-pleasing and fear of what others think continue to be obstacles and likely will be for some time, my relationship with God is the key to strengthening my gifts and overcoming what holds me back. As my friend said this afternoon, it’s the only way to become the artist I want to be.