Graduate school, especially in an art like writing, is a weird experience for a perfectionist like myself. There are no correct answers in writing. Even within grammar, there are multiple styles and flexibility if making a conscious choice. It’s not that everything is arbitrary, but it is kind of arbitrary. The focus of my classes is more on building skills than on getting a correct answer or a good score.
This is quite the change from when I studied biology in college, and practically all of my formal schooling before that. For most of my core major classes, the averages on exams were in the 70s. My goal was always to be in the 90s, a goal I typically achieved. That created an approach where I was hyper-focused on knowing the facts in detail or doing the math correctly, and less focused on learning as a process. Now, I don’t have a choice but to focus on the process.
This shift is good for me, don’t get me wrong. It’s part of why I enjoy writing, and the arts as a whole: it’s about growth in a skill, not a correct answer. But this change is still an adjustment. Recently, I got a paper back in which I critiqued the communication of a popular science book. My professor has asked me to redo the critique with stronger, more focused arguments. Her reasons make sense, and I appreciate the opportunity to redo the assignment. But I would be lying, if I said my initial reaction wasn’t panic. It’s panic that I’ve “gotten the answer wrong” or that I “am imperfect.” Again, there is no correct answer. Being perfect is impossible, and definitely not the point of this MFA program. Still, that mindset is so automatic from years of practice and schooling that way.
Thankfully, the panic about the assignment didn’t last long. My thoughts are always a mix of perfectionism and that new focus on growth, but usually after only a little time, the growth thoughts are able to win. It helps to remember that the reason I entered this writing program, and a main reason I continue to write, is to keep getting better and an art form I love. If I started already at the highest limit of my skills, a limit that doesn’t really exist, there would be no more room to improve.
The other main reasons I write are to express myself, and to hopefully write something that others can relate to in their own expressions. Achieving those goals are far more important than writing something “perfect” any day.