For some of us writers, perfectionism is a real problem. We think that if we produce the perfect first draft, have the perfect plot, execute the perfect manuscript, then we will sell. Then we will get that next contract. We’ll seal the big deal that will launch us into literary stardom.
If only we could be perfect, we’d be happy.
Some perfectionists carry it even further and develop an all-or-nothing attitude. Either be perfect or don’t do it at all. What’s the point of writing a rough draft? Either write perfect prose the first time, or don’t bother.
Chances are you aren’t a perfectionist in every area of your life. When it comes to gardening or housekeeping, or maybe even your day job, you’re more forgiving of mistakes or more laid back. Why is that? Is it because those things don’t mean as much to you? Or because you’re more confident in your skills in those areas, so you know that you don’t need to be perfect to succeed?
You know you can plant a seed ¼ inch into the ground instead of the instructed ½ inch and still successfully grow a plant, so you don’t feel the need to take a ruler with you to the garden to precisely measure the depth of your sowing.
On the other hand, you may agonize for hours on just the right word to use to describe your heroine’s hair color because your mind has conjured the idea that if you don’t get it just right you’ll fail.
Often, if it becomes too difficult to perfect something, we just give up. We don’t mail that manuscript because we can’t even get up the guts to show it to a critique partner. We know we didn’t get it perfect, but we sure as hell aren’t going to let anyone else see that.
There are so many problems with perfectionism, I barely know where to begin. But there’s one main problem.
There’s no such thing as perfect.
Is your newly sparkling kitchen really clean? Depends on who you ask. Might look perfectly fine to me, but not even close to good enough for your clean-freak mother.
Are you a good enough parent? To my best friends, yes. But my parenting style is far different than some other parents I know, and I fight constantly with my feelings of inadequacy when I see mothers who devote every living, breathing moment to their kids to the exclusion of having any identity outside of “Mom.” This would not be me.
Is your story worthy of publishing? Most likely, you’ll get different opinions from each person you ask. What one person thinks is an amazing story might elicit no more than a lukewarm meh from someone else.
When something is subjective, there’s no way to get a definitive answer, and you have to understand that. Kathryn Stockett, bestselling author of The Help, in a recent article for More magazine confessed that The Help received 60 rejections before she finally got an agent. SIXTY. But once she had the right person, the book sold a mere three weeks later.
Don’t try to tell me writing isn’t subjective.
If we can’t be guaranteed that perfection — which we clearly can’t be guaranteed — we often choose not to try in the first place. What if Stockett had given up? What if she had thrown in the towel (or the manuscript) because it clearly wasn’t perfect? After all, 60 (SIXTY!) people told her so. If she’d given up, she would not have seen her name in the New York Times.
We all “give up” in small ways every day. We procrastinate. We come up with reasons why we can’t write. We stress and fret about what we do write, until we’re crippled by fear. We don’t enjoy the writing, because we’re so focused on the future.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
According to Brené Brown, Ph.D., (who I will be quoting a lot in the future, since she is brilliant, and I have both her books on their way to me right now), we use perfectionism to hide our feelings of unworthiness.
Perfectionism, says Brown (paraphrased, as it was in a video), is not the same as healthy striving to do good work. Perfectionism in any area of our lives is a way to hide from our fear of being vulnerable, from our fear of anyone seeing that we have faults, aren’t perfect and make mistakes. We feel unworthy of love, care or publication, so we try to force perfection. It gives us something to blame when we get rejected… “If only I’d made it more perfect before I sent it.”
Can we say unhealthy?
It’s important to get to the point where you understand there are no perfect books. Even the authors of bestsellers will tell you, upon reading their bestselling book again, where all the flaws are, every instance they wish they would have chosen a different word, provided a better twist, made their characters more interesting.
If we recognize why we struggle to be perfect writers — to cover up our fears that we aren’t worthy to be published writers — and accept that perfection isn’t possible and rejection is just part of the journey, we stop being so afraid to try.
We will seek to do the best we can with what we’ve got right at this moment and reject perfection as an impossible dream that just blocks any chance at happiness we have.
Just like perfect characters are boring to readers, a perfect life would be boring to us. Believe me…if there were no challenge in writing a book because we got it perfect every time, we’d be bored after once or twice and try to find something that was more interesting.
One last reminder: If no one ever failed making a shot in basketball…then there would be nothing special about making the shot. If everyone who tried writing a book succeeded, there would be nothing special about writing a book. We’re all worthy of being published writers if we so choose, but it mean stepping out and making that shot, knowing that even if we miss this time, there’s always a next time if we don’t give up.