I was once reading Alexis Teyie’s work, which I love and hunt down every now and then because she makes really beautiful poetry in really silent corners. In her piece, she talked about how an artist’s reluctance to share work is actually pride (and she of course put it more glamorously). And I thought that was a bold statement but I saw all the ways that it was true for a lot of us, not just artists. The need to present your paintings, your Powerpoint slides, your Math homework to people only when it is perfect, can be proud, because it is shying away (to put it mildly), from sharing our imperfections, which is why the anti-social media crusaders are always coming for us. Think about it. Social media has us, quite literally, showing only our pretty sides, and always making the standards of this pretty more and more absurd.
I grew up on a lot of awful quotes attributed unfairly to either Einstein or Maya Angelou or Thomas Jefferson or one of the writers of the Old Testament. And I do not remember all of them but a major theme was how you should never think of yourself as having achieved perfection, that you should always push yourself to be better, that you should always be finding new goals. Our Math teachers would call on these wahenga quotes before beating you for scoring 98%, or scoring a 100% but not showing your working. And they would say that they did not want you to think that “you had arrived”.
One of the main reasons I could not sustain my Catholicism, or my religion, was that ironically I felt such pressure always to be perfect. I curled up in fear of breaking one commandment or the other, which would paralyse my efforts to just live and breathe and appreciate the sun’s yellow. And while the crazy high standards were not the reason I stayed irreligious, I felt a little sad that I did not find a space to cut myself slack in the place that should most cut you slack.
And I understand why there is a need for such a school of thought, of course, that you as a human being should always be aiming to do better. However, the older I get the more I fear that we preach striving for perfection without preaching acknowledging how far we have come. I feel like stopping to say “Wow, Ivy, you actually achieved this” is not only an underappreciated means of staying calm before confronting new storms, but it is actually seen as a form of being conceited. And that is an awful attitude for individuals but also for society in general. If we do not think the things we have done worthy of sharing with society, then can you imagine how many creative policies have been trashed that would have helped us solve the education debacle, for instance, or how many entrepreneurial ideas had the light shut out of them when the person who conceived them went to bed at night thinking they were not good enough, that they could be more perfect as we were taught to assume, and can you imagine how many songs will never reach our ears because of the same attempts at perfection. Just look at the things that come up around the time #CreativeKE is trending and imagine a world where everybody hides those parts of themselves.
So it is pride, not sharing our work, it is prideful to think that I am capable of perfection and thus should only produce perfect work. But it is also a pride that sometimes I have little control over, that I cannot battle because I learned it so well.
I guess then we cannot talk about this without talking about the need to be kind, to offer criticism only honestly and only courteously, to colleagues, to classmates, to strangers on the Internet. Personally, I feel a little death inside when I read some of my earlier work. It was not the best, but it took up space confidently, aware of its imperfection but elbowing out all other literature to claim its space, and sometimes I fear that all of my training has improved the architecture of my pieces. I know what to do, but that same training threatens everyday to take away the soul of these pieces, like if the god I believed in had forgotten to breathe air into the man he made out of soil.
I once watched a TED talk about (forgive the massive paraphrase about to happen here) how people in the past believed that a demon possessed artists– that is why they could paint or write, or make music. It really calmed me down, because it then suggested that the days I could not create were not my fault, but my demon’s, like if he is feeling lazy is that my fault? It reminded me of how in high school after exams the teachers would feel lazy to come to class, and we would know in our hearts that we were the ones negatively affected and that we would not finish the syllabus on time to master it and be tested on it eventually. But in this aleluyia moment of the teachers’ truancy, we would go to the field and frolick in the sun and have conversations and make memories that I still keep in a crystal ball in my chest which warms my heart on days when the rainbow is enuf. This is one of the ways I show perfection the middle finger.
And I am always anxious about how so scared we are that we do not talk about imperfection and normalise it. Like what would it be like if Chimamanda had genius moments like Americanah and still shared work that she did not think was beautiful (if you dare imagine that she creates any unbeautiful work)? Our silence on the greyer sides of otherwise glossy matters is remarkable, like how nobody talks about how women experience pain during sex yet 30% of women report it, or how 49% of women experience incontinence after childbirth. But there is something about that silence, about not talking about all of the scary scary scary things we know we must face when we get out of bed in the morning.
And, perhaps Okasungora readers will identify with some of these anxieties when pursuing your own passions, but sometimes it takes my everything to let anyone but myself into the haunted house that is my art, to not overthink it, to hit “Share”.