On Perfectionism and Creativity: Does Academic Writing Kill Creativity?

I was eight years old when I wrote my first story.

It was a dreadful story about a group of friends pursuing adventures around Jordan’s ancient city of Petra. I don’t remember the characters, or the plot in the story (possibly because there was none). What I do remember is how much I cherished the process of sitting down, holding a pencil, and building a world with words on a blank sheet of paper. I remember the tiny yellow pen I accidentally stole from my deskmate at school, the plain notebook that had a transparent cover, and the ceaseless hours I spent handwriting, sometimes at my desk, sometimes on the bunk bed I’d shared with my sister–my cave as my parents and sister not so kindly suggested. The aptly named writer’s bump that emerged on my middle finger attested to the satisfaction with which the whole process gifted me.

In the past month, I’ve found myself reminiscing about those days when the act of writing didn’t involve any other pressures (than the one applied to my finger). I’d say: when the act of writing was as simple and organic as riding a bike, but well, I never learnt how to ride a bike. This realization makes me even more bitter about the whole thing–it was easier to sit down and write for me than ride a bike!

Fast forward to now, I still can’t ride a bike, and the ease with which I used to write is gone, albeit temporarily. In fact, lately I’ve been feeling like my new favorite character Valeria, the protagonist in the Netflix original series Valeria, the Spanish Sex and the City as I call it, deliriously looking up the word “Imposter” on the internet in an episode, as she battles an insufferable writer’s block.

As you can see, “writing” has been high on my agenda. Of course, if I spent the energy I pour into thinking into grabbing a pen and putting words into the page, I would’ve already had a first draft of my novel. As many of us know too well, when one is in the middle of an existential crisis, it is often easier said than done. Even though the Czech intuitive therapist I saw in an online session claims I feel creatively blocked because I haven’t had a proper closure with my ex-boyfriend, I don’t think it is as simple as blaming the ex, either.

(I kind of wish it was)

The truth is, while I felt as though the world was my oyster when I was eight ( “Which I with sword will open” as Mr. Shakespeare wrote), the sword has gotten a bit rusty for the thirty-two-year-old me.  

When I look back on the last time I finished writing a comprehensive writing project, I feel proud. The sense of pride, however, arrives with a pang of anxiety and suffocation, which then keeps me away from my writing desk.

What I remember from endless hours spent on writing, drafting, revising, editing, and finishing a 200-page dissertation and a 25-page paper submitted for publication, among others, is a constant dread about the future within an academic system that banks on perfectionist tendencies. Even though I feel fortunate that my department and committee gave me the freedom to move beyond the ancient theories and philosophies, I can’t help but wonder if writing my dissertation curbed my creativity, “my sense of imagination and memories walking” in Anne Lamott’s terms. Anne Lamott reminds us in Bird by Bird (1995) that this is to be expected. “You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft,” she writes, “where amid the anxiety and self doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking.”

In the same book, Lamott also writes:

Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force. Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground–you can still discover new treasures under those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.

When I look back, the entire process of writing my dissertation and academic articles feels like held breath, suspended animation with no room for movement. Sure, I suffer from perfectionism, but doesn’t academic culture exacerbate, or should I say encourage, perfectionist tendencies?

Despite all the narratives about “the best dissertation is a done dissertation,” we all know that the reviewing process for the journals, the Q & A in many conferences, the pressure for tenure, etc. urge us to produce writing that is closest to perfect in a fraction of the time. It is a competition, after all.

From my perspective, two primary issues arise when it comes to transgressing the (alleged) dichotomy between academic writing and creative writing (If you do a PhD in Creative Writing or CNF, you may be one of the lucky ones who could be having an easier time balancing it all out). One is, lack of time. As I was on an academic path, I didn’t have any time (or any mental and emotional energy) to dedicate to my creative work while doing research, teaching, and writing academic articles full-time. I was preparing for the job market; of course, trying to get published was more productive. The other issue is the strict norms and rules that must be followed in professional academic writing–I must emphasize here– to get published. I never had any issues following the rules per se; I LOVED writing papers, and I began the process of learning the jargon as an undergraduate. The seminars in graduate school certainly allowed for mess and clutter, which I relished. However, no one taught me how to perfect a messy seminar paper. Naturally for me, when it was time to write and submit for publication, the pressure was more than I could bear.

And now a familiar sense of pressure for perfection weighs heavy on me every time I sit at my desk to work on my novel. It is obvious that I need more time and space to undo the damage that has been done to my nervous system in the last year of my PhD, some self-inflicted. It also helps to know that I’m not the only writer who questions the feasibility of juggling academic writing and creative writing.

In This Is Not a Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World (2013), writer Kerry Maher (Majors) discusses a piece of solicited advice she received from a famous history professor at her alma mater Berkeley. Maher writes about her conversations with the professor that revolved around creative writing and her aspiration to become a novelist. She recalls one of those conversations:

He asked me how my writing was going, and I started to talk about my English classes. He interrupted me and said he meant my creative writing. I paused, and said something like, “Fine,” because at the time I was really throwing myself into my classes, and I wasn’t doing much fiction writing.

Then he said it.

He said, “You have to be careful, Kerry. Academic writing will kill your creative writing.”

Kill. That’s a strong word.

I found out later that once upon a time, he had written fiction himself, but when his academic career took off, he’d stopped. Toward the end of his career, when he was emeritus and all that good stuff, and he no longer needed to publish academic prose, he started poking away at fiction again. I’m glad. I suspect it nourished his soul. But judging from the comment he made to me, I think he felt he’d gotten to the fiction way too late.

This advice, from someone I respected so greatly, really stopped me in my tracks.

[…] He was also talking about something deeper than time; he was talking about the way in which academic writing–with its jargon and footnotes and roundedness in rationality–was antithetical to the kind of imagination good fiction requires. He was saying that the factual way I’d have to think to be an academic would stifle and eventually kill my imagination.

“Kill” is, indeed, a strong word. Can it also be the right one in this context?

It’s a word that sets off alarm bells, placing me in an imaginary heavily fortified panic room filled with blaring alarms and flashing red lights.

It seems like “kill” is a key word for me, as I try to make meaning of my struggles with the writing process at the moment. It must have had a similar effect on Maher, as her professor’s advice changed the course of her career. She later notes that her professor’s words weren’t completely true, but they were true for her.

I agree; one can be a professor/academician and a novelist. Brilliant scholars who can juggle both academic writing and creative writing under pressure exist. Isaac Asimov, Viet Thanh Nguyen, the wonderful Gloria Anzaldua, and Ruth Behar exemplify the ways in which creativity can be used to enhance/improve academic writing, and vice versa. However, I’ve always had to choose one over the other.

Now, I decided to write this post to not draw a conclusion about whether academic writing may have killed my creativity or not, but to explore what is going on with my writing. So, there is no conclusion here. The dichotomy between academic writing and creative writing aside, what I’m realizing is that as a new scholar, I may not have been comfortable with all the limitations placed on my writing. To create a new literary concept, I did use my imagination in my academic work, but within acceptable limits. And especially as a new scholar, it may be difficult to negotiate such boundaries. I’m also realizing that I’m certainly ready to transgress those limitations in my writing but need to accept that it may take some time for me to transition from scholarly writing to creative writing.

More importantly-

I should maybe acknowledge that the transition is never complete for writers like me with a background in both academic writing and creative writing. Maybe, this is the vicious circle, the norm for me. As I wrap up, I will spare you the cheesy reference to my writer’s bump that I’ve had all these years, but I must end with this: if it wasn’t for the eight-year-old me, I wouldn’t be where I am today, both creatively and academically.

So, I will pat myself on the back for having drafted this post–

and write on


What do you think about juggling academic writing and creative writing? Do you think academic writing may kill creativity?

I’d love to hear your experience(s) and thoughts!

-Neriman

11 thoughts on “On Perfectionism and Creativity: Does Academic Writing Kill Creativity?

  1. An interesting post, Neriman! ✨
    In my case there has been a conscious restraint of the academic influence, since escaping its requirements.
    Having studied philosophy, I later felt a pressure to restrict my vocabulary and simplify (dumb-down?) my writing to gain an audience.
    (The anxiety persists that, if I slipped back into some jargonised/ postmodernist style, for example, I might hardly be read at all.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ken, I absolutely get the struggle with the language. It becomes second nature to use the jargon, and it is hard not to slip at times–for me. This brings to mind Elif Shafak’s debut The Saint of Incipient Insanities. I don’t know if you’ve got the chance to read it–she writes in English, and when I read her first novel, I could see the influence of her academic background on the novel through the advanced vocabularies and the jargon she used. I love that novel, but at times the language feels forced. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you!
        I wasn’t aware of that book, but have experienced the intrusion of jargon into fiction, elsewhere.
        (And it’s not easy for me to recall examples of where academic jargon has greatly improved a novel?)

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      2. You’re right–In my post, I was thinking of works of creative non-fiction like Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera, but I can’t think of a novel where academic jargon has drastically improved it, either…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes: I agree.
        Though, many years ago, I recall Malcolm Bradbury’s “Doctor Criminale” poking fun at academics, jargon, and postmodernism.
        It wasn’t a very good novel, in my opinion.
        There were other satires and comedies around that era (1980s and 1990’s) critical of campus culture and pretensions,
        but no great works.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. As an academic who jumped off so I could get back to creative work, I’d not draw such a huge distinction. I think this is something that totally varies from discipline to discipline. I’ve been lucky to be in anthropology, where we’ve always had a sideline in creative writing – and even stuff like graphic novels, film, poetry. Don’t give up and hold on tight tight tight to yourself! And good luck.

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  3. For me it’s like being cardio strong or muscular strong, you can totally do both, but they both take time and separate exercise. I’m actually strong as an academic writer, but I didn’t suffer from that in my creative writing, however, I did suffer from self-doubt, loss of faith in humanity, and many other emotional setbacks in my creative writing, without being affected in my academic writing. Creative writing is in a way a matter of the heart, so I could chug out an academic paper the same day my dog died like a soldier, but I could never make progress on a passion project while feeling like that. Disregarding academic rules to write fiction is easier than connecting to your own heart and soul the way fiction usually involves for me. 🐅

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I feel exactly the same way, Sakura. I always thought this was because I was trained in academic writing. It is easier for me to sit down and write an academic paper. I wonder if I’d have a similar reaction if I did a PhD in creative writing… But all this ease that comes with academic writing has led me to historical fiction, where I can do as much research as I can and also get creative 🙂

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