Paralysis of Analysis

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smok...“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” (Harriet Braiker, American psychologist and writer)

For years I’ve had a recurring dream. I’m on stage in a concert arena drumming for one of my favorite bands. The lights are flashing. The crowd is cheering. And then on cue, we launch into some complicated instrumental break. It’s at this point that I look around and realize that I am not really in this band, and there’s no way I’m talented enough to play the sorts of things I find myself playing. My hands grow heavy, the song falls apart, and the crowd becomes an angry, screaming throng.

I can only guess what Freud would have to say about these dreams, but I’ve always viewed them as a sobering commentary on both my aspirations as well as my limitations as an artist.

In his collection of journals entitled Confessions of a Barbarian, the twenty-five-year-old Edward Abbey ponders the progress he is making on his first novel:

“At times I’m afraid to read what I’ve written, almost superstitiously afraid—and then at other times I do work up enough courage to hastily read snatches chosen at random. The effects are mixed—parts of the book seem hilariously funny, beautifully written, packed and quivering with life. And then I’ll read the same passage again, or another, and it will seem dead as junkyard iron, pretentious and false, weak, thin, spineless, empty and hideous.”

I think all writers who are honest with themselves can relate to these sentiments. We have a vision of what we would like our words to achieve, yet in the process of giving form to this vision, we worry that something has somehow gotten lost. We rework the material—often to the point of draining away its life—because we fear that we’ve missed the mark artistically.

At a certain level, these sorts of self-doubts may be healthy, for they spur us on to perfect our skills. On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of talented writers whose work is in a perpetual state of revision, and they never seem to muster the courage necessary to submit their material for publication.

Speaking personally, I realized a long time ago that I may never be as skilled as some of my favorite authors; that level of talent is rare in this world. Yet I still have a voice, and I’d like to think that I have at least a few things to say that others might be interested in reading. Will these pieces be perfect? Probably not, but that’s okay. Like a diamond, it’s often those slight imperfections that provide the most luster.

Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012 from The University of the Arts (Phl) on Vimeo.

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About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.


  1. Great post, Scott, and all too true. For the writer, there’s no way you can do it alone. You need someone you trust to read it and say ‘it’s done, you can stop now’. Then you should listen to them.

    As far as perfection…the Star Wars trilogy was not perfect. It was full of flaws and everybody loved it. In fact we loved the flaws. Lucas made what he thought were perfect versions and…well…there ya go.

    • Heh heh – I love the Star Wars analogy. It’s so true, though. With captivating characters that readers/viewers fall in love with a root for, you can get away with a lot. People might wonder at all the questions left unanswered. But wondering and hating the “real” answer are very different things. Indeed … What happened to the Star Wars that we used to know?

  2. Tim Giron says

    Insightful post, Scott.
    I may or may not have re-read and reworked this comment several times in the pursuit of getting it just right.

  3. Scott Shields says

    Thank you for the comments, gentlemen. I’ve always been intrigued by something that Amish quilt makers and Muslim rug weavers do; they’ll intentionally sew imperfections into their creations to dispell any notion that they’ve somehow crafted a “perfect” work of art. That’s pretty cool.