Hello, dear readers! I hope you had a fantastic weekend.
You know the old saying, “if you can’t do something right, don’t do it at all?” While this may be an admirable philosophy in some cases, when you’re a writer, it can lead to disaster.
Very few writers love their own work all the time. In the midst of a first draft, it is normal to have attacks of self-doubt and be convinced that you’re the worst writer of all time and that everything you’re producing sucks. If you keep writing, this feeling will pass. It may return, but you just type right through it. Writing a novel is a little like climbing a mountain. It’s tough, it’s scary, and there are plenty of obstacles. But you can’t look back, and you can’t look down. The only way to get to the summit is to keep putting one foot–or in this case, one word–in front of the other. Once you get to the top, you’ll be glad you put in the effort.
The secret of success in writing, as Anne Lamott says in her wonderful book Bird By Bird, is to give yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft”. She doesn’t mean that you should strive to write your worst, but that you shouldn’t worry so much about the little grammar and spelling errors, terrible dialogue, inconsistent characterization, lackluster settings, or pacing. You can fix this later, when the first draft is done. No one is going to see your first draft but you, so who cares if it’s not your best work? You should only care that it’s finished.
In my experience, there are two kinds of writers. There’s the type that follows Lamott’s advice instinctively, and plows through a first draft, knowing they will correct and tighten, lift and tuck, later. Then there’s the sect that labors over a first draft like they are painting a masterpiece–every word has to be absolutely perfect along the way. They constantly edit their work while they write, producing few very pages each day in their dedication to cleaning up yesterday’s efforts. The most successful of these writers take years to finish a book, but spares themselves the agony of rewrites (or so they think). However, the vast majority get so discouraged and fatigued that they never finish anything at all.
It never fails to amuse me how often people act like being a perfectionist is something to be proud of. “I would have finished that novel,” they say, “but I’m too much of a perfectionist.” As if they are held to a higher standard of quality than those of us who pound out less-than-perfect drafts and then polish our story later. Perfectionism is actually another word for searing self-doubt, which can be caused by a fear of failure. These are the people who call themselves writers, yet never write a word, or who finish a novel but never send it anywhere because it is always less than perfect. I once knew an English major who was convinced he was the modern world’s finest writer. He never wrote anything, though–probably because he couldn’t handle finding out that he wasn’t as great as he thought.
Perfectionists aren’t limited to the writing world–they’re everywhere. And rare is the perfectionist who isn’t stymied by her conviction that everything must be perfect. It leads to procrastination, depression, and a general lack of productivity. Giving yourself permission to be less than perfect is one of the kindest gifts you can give yourself.
And I’ll tell you a secret….wait for it….
No one is perfect! And no book is, either!
So being a perfectionist is perpetually setting yourself up for failure.
How about you, dear readers? Have you overcome some perfectionist tendencies in yourself? (We all have them, to an extent.) How did you do it?