The trouble with being a perfectionist

Are you a writer-perfectionist? Here are some ways that I knew I was:

  • I had to ask one of my bridesmaids for a pen five minutes before I walked down the aisle because two sentences in my wedding vows were “redundant.”
  • I once copyedited the text on a napkin. That’s right, a napkin. (I resisted the urge to tell the waitress, “Do you know there’s a typo on your napkins?” But just barely.)
  • I develop facial tics when I find errors or formatting inconsistencies in my work post-publication.
  • I have trouble letting go of work because it’s not as good as it can be. Nothing is ever “done.”

It’s almost a joke that, when asked by an interviewer what we consider to be our greatest weakness, many of us respond, “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” That’s usually followed by a laugh and a look from the prospective boss that says, “No, seriously.”

We often equate being a perfectionist with being a hard worker and having high standards. Neither of the latter two is a bad thing. Making a career as a writer, deciding that, in fact, this isn’t a hobby but a genuine and feasible vocation, is hard work. It’s not for the faint of heart. And readers, editors, and agents will have high expectations for our work, so we need to hold ourselves to those same standards.

But sometimes perfectionism is an excuse. We keep piddling with a work revising and revising and revising, until our brains seem to be made of Jell-O or we feel like a dog chasing its tail. We don’t query agents, submit to editors, or even send work to beta readers or critique partners because the WIP isn’t the best it can be. Or maybe we do share it with our trusted critiquers, but hold off on sharing it with the larger world. Is it really perfectionism that’s holding us back? Or is being a perfectionist really a stand-in for fear: fear of success, of failure, of being judge?

WARNING: Unnecessary, crazy-making perfectionism can lead to hair-pulling, premature wrinkles, and a general sense of angst.

Here are two scenarios in which perfectionism stood in the way:

One of my friends is working on her thesis. She spent years working on it before finally sharing it with her thesis committee, holding off until the very last minute. Why? Because when she writes something, she wants it to be perfect. I urged her to just write a crappy first draft and then revise, but every page she wrote, she revised as she went. It took her longer to write this way, in my opinion, because she constantly had to switch roles from writer to editor, back and forth. Being a perfectionist meant she took the long route.

I was once charged with writing an article about our university’s role in the wine industry. A lot of higher ups were very excited about the article and had high expectations. I’d written for a few issues of the magazine, but this was the biggest project I’d worked on to date. Deadline arrived and I had a ton of quotes and background research, but no finished product. I was frozen, paralyzed by the thought of disappointing readers and my bosses. Finally, a friend told me, “I think if you settled for what you consider to be mediocre, your standards would still be five times higher than most people’s.” Huh. Her words allowed me to let go of expectations and just write. And you know what? To this day, I’m proud of that article and consider it one of my best. I gave myself creative freedom and wrote a strong, engaging article. My department VP even gave a rave review—and he’s not someone who doles out compliments easily.

Perfectionism can be the mask worn by plenty of other creatures. It can really be self-doubt, or it can be that we’re not sure how to proceed. We allow ourselves to get lost muddling through details because the big picture or the next step overwhelms us. In short, perfectionism can be procrastination. And procrastination can be fear in disguise because, let’s face it, it’s easier to admit that we’re lazy than it is to admit that we’re scared.

Overachievers will always be overachievers. And there’s nothing wrong with high standards–as long as they don’t prevent us from writing, finishing a manuscript, sending it to agents/editors, or even posting on our blogs. Not even the best book is “perfect.” A book can be riveting, suspenseful, well-crafted, engaging, provocative, excellent–an all-around great read–but it can never be perfect.

Somewhere inside of us lurks a a perfectionism beast. If it escapes from its cage, it can slow us down or, even worse, derail us. I’m starting to learn that if left untamed, this creature can, at the very least, be a one-way ticket premature wrinkles and stomach ulcers.

How do you confront your inner perfectionist?

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The ‘Secret’ of Writing: Write

Wait, that can’t be right? Can it?

After a long hiatus, I’m returning to LJ *sound of trumpets*, a little ragged and weary after a whirlwind end of the semester. While I absolutely love teaching writing, the amount of feedback I give my students could trigger carpal tunnel, and it certainly keeps me up until all hours of the night. But hearing back from them after the semester ends reminds me that it’s all worth it. I had a student write to me over the summer to thank me for how helpful my class was to me in her internship. You don’t always get that kind of feedback, but it’s nice to know that all of that red ink hasn’t been for naught.

Ah, so on to a new challenge then: the blank page. I’m returning to a manuscript that I paused on in August to focus on teaching. It can be hard to regain momentum, but after a couple years of striving for a balance, I’m starting to find an approach to writing discipline that works for me. Even if my writing routine varies, my dedication to the story doesn’t waver. Writing exercises, manuscript critiques, small side projects, all of these things keep going throughout the semester and make sure my current novel-length WIP is never far from my mind.

Writers know that real writing isn’t jotting down a neat idea or writing an opening scene. Real writing is sticking to a project, even when the writing sucks (‘cuz sometimes it does), even when it’s exhausting and feels endless. Because if the product of writing is a story (or poem, play, song, etc.) then the end result needs to be a story. Just like art isn’t a bunch of doodles, just as a song isn’t a tune that came to you in the middle of the night, being a writer means having the discipline to write and finish your projects, whatever they might be.

And true writers know this. The key to writing is discipline. Sure, writing is creative, writing is spiritual, and writing fills the blank page and makes something out of nothing (or so it might seem). But in order to be a writer, we have to create that something.

So when a non-writer says to me (so sure of him/herself), “I have this great idea that you should write into a story,” I politely say, “I have enough ideas. But you should write that.” Writing isn’t a great idea. A great idea is a “triggering town”–that little blink-and-you-miss-it town you drive through on your way to your destination.

Inspiration is great. Full-fledged stories take work, dedication, and discipline.

Discipline and dedication in the process of writing come in many shapes and sizes. Some writers wake at 5 a.m.; some work until 5 a.m. Some work 9 to 5; others carve out an hour or two each day to write. There’s no magic formula. Because I teach, my schedule varies throughout the year. I sometimes feel guilty when I’m grading papers while my other writer friends are revising their work. Because of my schedule, my writing moves slower than others’ might. But I still have a schedule, even if it varies. My dedication to finishing the piece doesn’t change, regardless of the time of year.

When another writer talks about her/his writing practice/schedule/routine, I think we need to keep in mind that every approach is individual. We can incorporate aspects of that approach into our work (writing at a coffee shop was some of the best advice I’ve ever received), but we need to find what works for us.

One of the worst things we can do is to feel guilty because we read that another writer, whether best-selling author or aspiring, has a higher word count per day, or writes 9 to 5, or writes every day. Those can be crippling if they don’t fit into the reality of your life. If you only write three or four days a week, that’s still good progress. I write four days a week, about three hours each day, when class isn’t in session. This doesn’t count time at crit groups, networking with fellow writers, reading in my genre, reading books about writing, critiquing others’ work, writing in this blog, etc.

As long as you have a schedule that works for you, that’s what counts.

And so, as I finish a semester of teaching writing and begin a season in which I focus more on my own creative endeavors, I find myself examining the uniqueness of every writer’s approach to discipline. People outside of the field may marvel at the craft of writing. But it’s as much discipline as it is creativity.

So tell me, what approach works best for you? Has it changed over time? And how did you find the best approach to the process?