A Word of Encouragement and Advice for Perfectionists (Writers and Non-Writers Alike)

I recently read a post about perfectionism on the wonderful Laini Taylor’s blog (it’s great, and you should read it: here!), and it got me thinking about my own brand of perfectionism. Because yeah, I’ve got it. I’ve got it bad . . .

For instance, it took me years and years of writing like mad before I ever shared a word of it with anybody. I never even really told anyone just how in love I was with writing. Then one day a friend caught me in the act. Somehow, she managed to convince me to fork my notebook over. She read what I’d been working on (a poem, I’m pretty sure), and said, “Why didn’t you ever tell me you wrote? This is great!”

I didn’t believe her. But when she flipped back a few pages, read something else, and, with her nose all wrinkled up, said, “This? Not so great . . . ” – well, then I was a little more inclined to believe that she wasn’t just trying to be a good, supportive friend, and that she really thought some of my secret scribblings were half-decent.

This friend continued to encourage me to share my writing with her, and went on to urge me to join workshops and submit to journals – to go public, so to speak, with the fact that I was a writer.

And I can’t even begin to explain how grateful I am that she did.

My stomach sinks when I think about what might’ve happened had she not happened upon me writing poetry that day. I’m sure I would’ve gone on scribbling happily enough, and who knows what would’ve happened down the line – maybe I would’ve begun to share my work of my own accord, maybe I could’ve eventually cleared that hurdle without any outside assistance.

Maybe, but maybe not . . .

And that’s where the sinking stomach comes in. Because all the while I was covertly composing couplets, I was also thinking, How amazing would it be if I could just DO THIS all the time? In other words, I wanted to be a writer. I felt, in fact – and feel still – that I didn’t have a choice. No matter what I ended up doing with my life, I knew I’d be scribbling in a notebook (or typing on a keyboard) for the duration of the journey.

The problem being that I didn’t believe I could ever be, you know, a real writer (by the way: this idea that some writers are real and others are not real is ridiculous and dangerous and, sadly, very prevalent). I’d look at one of my poems or short stories and say, Well, this isn’t good enough. It’s not done. It’s not PERFECT.

And here – I promise! – here comes the sinking stomach, and all the emotions bundled into that sickening, anxious feeling. Because I can’t help but wonder (super-unproductively, I know) how many valuable experiences (and how much helpful feedback) I missed out on because I sat there scratching out and rewriting my sentences over and over and over again, feeling like I just wasn’t, and therefore couldn’t ever be, good enough. The scratching out and rewriting is a very necessary part of the writing process (and it can be a very rewarding one, too), but the feeling that came attached to it? Well, that I could’ve done without.

And yeah, it’s scary putting yourself out there. It’s terrifying. Whether you’re sharing a poem with a friend, reading a short story in a workshop, or sending a manuscript out to agencies. That’s because it’s risky. It’s risky just like walking up to someone and asking them out on a date is risky – you might get some bad feedback, a rejection, a straight-up NO.

But nothing’s perfect. Nobody’s perfect. It’s a cliché, but that doesn’t mean people believe it. I don’t think it’s possible to believe it all of the time, and I’m willing to bet there are only a few, incredibly positive individuals who believe it most of the time. And I think that the only way to get there, to actually believing in this age-old snippet of wisdom, is to not only admit that you aren’t (or your novel isn’t) perfect – because come on, anyone can do that – but to also accept it. You need to look at your imperfections head-on and say, That’s okay. I’m okay. You need to say, This manuscript is the most-perfect I can make it, and then send it to your friend or out to an editor and, with their help, make it even more perfect.

But not ever perfect perfect. Because perfect perfect is fake, impossible, delusional, unreal – in other words, it’s ugly. (Laini has another way of saying this: PURITY SUCKS. Go ahead and add PERFECT IS UGLY next to that.)

Despite all of this, I’m still guilty of thinking certain of my favorite books are perfect. But they are perfect – if this isn’t too confusing to say – because of their imperfections. In the best books, those imperfections are just symptoms of an author’s particular vulnerabilities.

Take Dickens, for instance.

This guy.
This guy.

Sometimes he’ll linger, stick around in a scene longer that he needs to, letting things get sentimental and saccharine (like an apple left out too long, how those brown spots carry an almost-alcoholic tang). But that’s because Dickens was a sentimental guy (at least when it came to his characters – word is that that softness didn’t always extend to his wife). And those lingering moments, often too sweet for my taste, are nonetheless some of my favorites. Because it’s at those moments when you’re closest to the author and his creation, when you can really feel the heart beating behind the page, the pulse in the prose. Another way to say this: it’s those vulnerable moments that make a book human. And it’s those most-human books that you carry around with you for your whole life, that you treat like a good friend, coming back to over and over and continuously learning new things from.

Listen: you’re not perfect. But that’s a good thing. I’m not perfect, and neither is the novel I’m currently working on. But you can be sure that I’m going to bust my ass to try and make it as close to perfect as I possibly can. The trick is to recognize that moment when you finally get there, and then figure out how to keep your perfectionist tendencies in check. Because you can’t do your best and then sit around beating yourself up about the fact that whatever you’ve done isn’t better – that isn’t going to do anybody any good. Instead you need to share your book (or yourself) with the world. Then you have to hope that you get some good feedback, the kind that can help you make your book (or yourself) just a little bit closer to perfect.

This blog has been a great way for me to practice this. I first approached it with all of my perfectionist tendencies very much intact. I sat there tweaking that first post, and then tweaking it some more. And honestly, I could’ve kept on going. It’s possible I still wouldn’t have pressed that PUBLISH button. But then I had a bit of a breakthrough – I decided that I needed to think of this blog as more journal-like, and less book-like, that it was okay to post something that I hadn’t sat there laboring over (i.e., perfecting) for days and days.

This post is not by any means a perfect piece of writing (there’s that “very much” in the second sentence of the previous paragraph, for example, which I’m dying to go back and delete). But I’m going to go ahead and press PUBLISH anyway, because I’m hoping to get some helpful feedback (like maybe Mark Twain will climb out of his grave and hop onto the Internet to tell me: “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”). Plus, like I said, it’s good practice. The putting myself out there, taking a risk. And you know what they say, practice makes perf – errr, I mean better. Practice makes better. Better and better and better.

I’ll leave you with a quick anecdote . . .

I’ve been known to remove items from the fridge, use said items, and then return them to the fridge – but, importantly, not to the spots I originally found them in. My girlfriend gave me some feedback about this (and yeah, I’ll admit, I often go in for the milk and leave the thing looking like it got ransacked by a gang of hungry raccoons). So now I’m trying to revise my behavior, to be a bit better about this habit of mine. And, I mean, it makes sense. Keeping the fridge clean, sure, but also applying the whole feedback-revision process to your life. Because we’re all just works in progress, right?

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