As fiction writers, we’re all carriers for the virus Perfectionism. The symptoms are well-documented: brow-furrows, fear and doubt in the vicinity of a writing instrument, frequent headaches, irritability, Facebook and Twitter addiction, just to name a few. You may not experience all of these symptoms at once, but if you’re a writer, you’ve definitely been afflicted at one time or another. Perhaps perfectionism keeps you from getting started on an idea, or from diving into a first draft revision. However it rears its ugly head in your writing life, perfectionism must be dealt with swiftly and without mercy.
Defining Perfectionism. First, what is it? Essentially, perfectionism is a fear of doing anything if it cannot be done perfectly. When we embark on a creative endeavor, whether starting a picture book, revising a novel, or even writing a blog post, the need to be perfect latches on and makes us inventory every word, each character, every bit of dialogue, and deem it unworthy. Then we turn inward, questioning whether we really should be a writer if it doesn’t come easy. Nothing we write feels good enough, so we stop trying, which is the true tragedy of how perfectionism hurts us.
The roots of perfectionism lie in fear and doubt, and it has a creative arsenal of weapons it uses against us. What will people think of me when this is done? What will people think if I complete this and it isn’t an immediate success?Whatever your specific doubt, the thoughts begin with the work, but then invade into the self. What if I really am a hack? Am I wasting my time trying to be a writer? I can’t even finish a chapter without quitting. Everyone is waiting for me to fail, or, just as stressful is the opposite thought, Everyone is waiting for me to succeed.
You’re in Good Company. I can assure you that all writers have the above thoughts at some point in time, and it’s completely normal. However, in order to free yourself from its obsessive hold, you must go to war on it. Perfectionism’s goal is to mire us in doubt so we never write, because it doesn’t want us to. It wants us to remain listless, to continue thinking instead of doing. And this is why we must treat it as the enemy, as the great saboteur it really is. In order to defeat the enemy, we must write. Write terribly, write with vulnerability. Stop paying attention to every word, every sentence. Your writing doesn’t need to be awesome all the time. Before you can look at it with a critical eye, it must first exist.
Writers are All Humans. A key point to remember is that all writing is done by humans. Yes, that includes me and you. Terribly flawed and imperfect humans that can only make decisions by the light we have to see by. It’s easy to place our favorite writers on pedestals and revere them as superheroes, but in fact, they are just like us, except for one difference: They’ve learned to write with perfectionism running through their veins. Realizing it’s there, but refusing to let it stop them.
What is Perfect, Anyway? Perfect is a vague standard that really doesn’t have one definition—in fact, I’d bet that your idea of writing perfection differs from mine. Despite this, we falsely believe it exists, and therefore, we must be able to attain it with our writing. Let’s be clear about one thing: perfect doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as writing without revision. And isn’t it comforting to know we have many chances to write and rewrite and rewrite some more? Nobody likes to get one shot at something, and thankfully, we don’t have to buy into those high stakes.
Art is Messy. Art comes out of us as an explosion of fireworks, or as a slow trickle, or like a spurt that gushes at first then slows to a healthy pressure. No two people make art the same, but you can bet that it’s unpredictable. To place perfection parameters around something as messy as art would be to take away its very nature. We can hone our skills as best we can, but making art will always be like trying to tame a wild animal. It isn’t easy, and likely never will be. As artists, we must accept those terms and do the work anyway. It’s always more rewarding to do something than to do nothing.
Perfectionism can only survive if you allow it to fester. Instead of listening to the negative thoughts that keep you mired in fear, try accepting that your writing doesn’t have to be immediately magical. Not only will you find the freedom to write, but you’ll be happier because you finally get to do what you love without judgment.
A final thought: It’s okay if perfectionism has won a battle or two; it doesn’t mean the war is over. Pick yourself up and return to the page. I promise it’ll accept you back, just the way you are.
How have you overcome perfectionism? What advice would you give to other struggling writers?