So as I was writing my newest newsletter, I found myself on a lengthy tangent about perfectionism. At the risk of my email turning into a bloated beast, I decided to turn it into a blog post. Which is probably not a bad choice, considering I’m TERRIBLE about blogging and haven’t posted since August!
Anyway. I like to touch on my experiences and what I’m learning through the month about the work of writing, and that was how I found myself on the topic of perfectionism. For a long time, I considered perfectionism to be one of those “not-flaw” flaws. You know, when you’re at a job interview and they ask you, “So, what do you consider your greatest weakness?”
“Oh, I’m a real perfectionist.”
And when people say that, most of them mean it as a way to make themselves sound humble without really recognizing it as a flaw. It’s viewed as a good thing, a shorthand for “I have high standards and I’m very particular about meeting them.” It’s a way to say “I’ll stress myself out to do the best job I can,” which communicates that you work hard and do good work, which are not inherently problematic.
The problem is that perfectionism can, and often does, go beyond that. There’s nothing wrong with having high standards. The problem is that the person plagued with perfectionism often cannot tell the difference between ridiculous and realistic standards.
I’ve discovered this about myself in recent years. Due to some major life upsets and dealing with a stretch of time which can only be described as a true shit sandwich, I decided to seek counseling to deal with what I suspected were depressive episodes compounding my grief. I was correct, and continued to struggle with it for some time.
(I am not saying this to garner pity or cry for attention – I just don’t believe in hiding it, because I see it as being no different than talking to your doctor about any other health problem. If you struggle with anxiety, depression, or any other issue, I highly recommend finding a good counselor, as it can literally change your life.)
Anyway, one of the things she pointed out to me after a while was that I had really high standards for myself. And I said “well, yeah…but that’s not a bad thing.” I later told my best friend what my counselor said, and my best friend said, “Uh…I hope you aren’t paying her for that revelation.” Everyone I knew recognized this about me, though I wonder if they realize how deep it can run.
As we started to dig into it, I realized that my standards were so high that they were impossible to attain. That’s when I started to really look into the idea of perfectionism, and realized it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
High standards strive toward an ideal. When you set realistically high standards for yourself, you grow. You tell yourself, “I know I can do better,” and you reach for that ‘better,’ whatever it is. I think high standards are necessary for anyone in a creative field. Reaching for better and stretching out of your comfort zone are absolutely essential to growth.
The problem is when the standards are unrealistic. I’ll give you an example. In the months since I quit my full-time job to write, my brain has gone down this trail a few times:
“Okay. I know I can write at least 4k words in a day. 5k if I’m on a roll. That means I should be able to write a novel every single month. If I’m consistent, that’s enough words to be 3 full-length novels every two months. Eighteen manuscripts by the end of the year.”
Mathematically, it makes sense. I can do math. 4k x 30 days in the average month = 120k words a month. Standard adult novel length is 65 – 85k. Check me if you want.
But that’s not how it works. And on an intellectual level, I know it’s unrealistic. I know it’s not going to happen. I know that writing is not a numbers game. But the perfectionist in me is absolutely screaming. “You only wrote 2k words today! You didn’t write anything new today! You only edited three chapters today! HOW ARE YOU EVER GOING TO BE SUCCESSFUL?!”
Perfectionism is absolutely the enemy of creativity. It is the Joker, the Lex Luthor, the Regina George all rolled into one. When the mind is set in Perfection Pursuit Mode, every word seems wrong. You finish writing a paragraph and instantly think it’s shit, and you might as well quit, because you suck.
I’m prone to it in my writing and in virtually every other aspect of my life. I have been known to throw out a handwritten page because I thought my letters were too inconsistent or messy. Multiple times. That’s not cute or quirky.
Perfectionism is not a good trait. It IS a flaw, because behind the insecurity is a very sneaky, hidden inner image of superiority. I would wager to say that most people who are highly perfectionist don’t hold others to the insane standards they hold themselves. Which hey, that sounds awfully altruistic, doesn’t it? “I expect these ridiculous things for me, but not for you. See how nice I am?”
But really unpack for that for a minute. What does that really say? It says “I believe that I’m capable of this unrealistic standard, so I have to meet it. I can do what others can’t.”
Needless to say, the first time I had to face that, it was very uncomfortable. I’m learning to recognize it, and like any monster, giving it a name makes it easier to conquer. I don’t like to even acknowledge it, because I genuinely don’t think I’m better than others. That’s the crazy contradiction of perfectionism. It’s this weird mashup of inferiority and superiority.
And even though I’m learning to recognize it, sometimes there is a quiet, sinister voice that still says “You can do so much better than this,” but it’s not encouraging. It’s demeaning. It says “the work you’re doing is crap. It’s not good enough, not creative enough, just not enough in any way.” And when you plead, “but I’m doing my best right now,” it retorts, in its very smug and matter-of-fact way, “Then I guess your best isn’t good enough.” It doesn’t allow for improvement or progress.
Perfectionism is more than just a creative problem. It’s associated with anxiety and depression. It leads to crippling inferiority and insecurity. It often results in “I can’t do this right, so I’m giving up.”
When we talk about NaNoWriMo, there’s a lot of discussion about shutting down the inner editor. To me, the only way I can get through a first draft is to give myself permission to suck. I often label my first drafts “V.0” – as in Version 0, a draft BEFORE the first draft. (Yes, I know that’s not how numbers work.) It takes a little of the pressure off. Not all of it. My brain finds a way to get around a little trick of file-naming, sadly.
It also throws a wrench in the planning process. Because I write a lot of fantasy, paranormal and other speculative work, I have to do some world-building before I ever start a book. I have several series in different stages of planning, and they require backstory and a set of rules for what goes on in this world.
I’ve never suffered from a lack of ideas. In fact, right now I have a list of probably two dozen ideas that could be developed into novels. But I struggle to nail any of them down because I want the universe in which the world is set to be PERFECT. It must be the MOST original, the MOST creative, the MOST unusual, the MOST groundbreaking, and if halfway through the process of world-building I have a different idea for how things could go, then the whole thing crumbles around me. Because what if it could be better than I’m thinking? What if it turns out that someone else already thought of this little twist and when I release the book someone says “Well, ____ already did this and did it better.”
And then I’m back to square one, paralyzed by the pursuit of perfection.
I’m learning to shut all of that down. I’m learning to say “I’ll write it this way, and I can fix it later.” I’m still learning on the world-building side, but it’s a work in progress. And that’s okay too.
I drew these ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT visuals, and I feel like I deserve a Congratulatory Cookie because I didn’t redraw it after realizing my stick people were different heights and the words “The Bar” were not arranged identically on the page. I didn’t even rescan it to make the lines look better. PROGRESS, PEOPLE.
Or I could pretend I made the stick people different sizes on purpose and make up something really deep about the way perfectionism reduces your self-image because of unrealistic standards…YEAH! That’s what we’ll go with.
But seriously. That left bar is a great long-term goal. But to look at it and say I can do it right now with exactly where I’m at? Just no. There’s no way Left Stick (like Left Shark) is getting to that bar. And he’s set up for failure from the beginning.
Now Right Stick has the right idea. It’s going to take a reach and a jump to get to his bar. He may miss. But he has a chance to succeed. His goal is realistic.
Don’t be Left Stick.
And just to be clear, I’m not advocating for mediocrity or settling for doing anything less than your best. I think it can go too far the other way, when people are willing to crap something out and say “I did my best,” when you know damn well they didn’t. In some ways, “doing your best” has become shorthand for “don’t judge me.” As a creative spirit, I know I can do good work, and I know when I don’t do it. If I’m going to ask people to spend money on my books, then I’m going to do the best I possibly can.
What I am doing is recognizing that there is a difference than Your Best and The Best. A great example here – if I said “Tomorrow I’m going to the track and I’m going to run a four-minute mile.” I literally cannot do that. If you chased me with a loaded gun to motivate me through absolute terror, I still could not do that, and I would vomit on your shoes in hopes that it would disgust you into running away instead of murdering me. That’s a bad goal.
A good goal would be “I’m going to try to cut one minute off my mile time in the next month. Let’s see if I can do it tomorrow.” I might be able to pull it off. And I’m likely to see enough progress that I’m not entirely discouraged. And if I really want to run (spoiler alert: I don’t, unless zombies are chasing me or there’s a really cool medal or free food at the finish line), then I would set long term goals.
My goal in writing is to write really good, entertaining books. I want each of my books to be the best I’m capable of at the time I write them, with a full understanding that a couple years from now I’ll probably reread it and go, “Seriously?” I’m doing that right now. The rights to my first published book (written in 2011, published in 2013) were reverted to me, and I’m now editing it again to republish. I’m astounded at it. It’s not horrible, but I’m definitely a better writer than I was then. And at the time, I thought it was pretty solid. And really? It was good for where I was at. Now I can do better, and I do.
Yes, I’d love for a book of mine to hit the NYT list. I’d love to get a call saying “We want to make this into a movie.” And you know what? Those aren’t crazy goals. But I don’t expect them to happen today.
Still, there is a Left Stick in my brain that wants my books to be THE BEST EVER, but Right Stick is currently hunting him down to duct tape him to a tree. What happens next is anyone’s best guess.
So thanks for making it through this rambling treatise on perfection. I’ve only gone back to revise it twice. 😉 Until next time, be Right Stick.