I’ve written how analyzing can be paralyzing. Perfectionism can be a similar paralytic.
As a perfectionist, I don’t want to do something if it will only be good, not great. When the bar is set at perfection, it’s often hard to even try. It can stop me before I get a chance to start.
It can also paralyze me before the task is complete. How? It’s hard to view the task as ever complete, because it can always be improved. I agonize over every detail, looking for imperfections to correct, never satisfied to call it “done.” A 400-word project turns into hours of rewrites and hand-wringing, wondering if anything else has been missed or could be more aptly phrased.
Yes, I have issues. For now, let’s focus less on this second issue and more on the “stop before we start” aspect. As I work to build a house for myself in the neighborhood of writing, it is this side-effect of perfectionism that threatens to destroy my cottage before the blueprints are dry. What if what I build turns out to be a disaster area? A money pit? Or, (perhaps worse) what if it’s ok, but not wonderful? The perfectionist in me trembles at the thought of being a good writer, not a great writer. Is it worth trying?
If I decide yes, I must face scary thought number two: Am I worthy? Once I break ground and start construction, can I call myself a resident of Writersville? How complete must my little cottage be to claim residence? Surely something must be done to earn this status. Do I need to prove myself worthy somehow? At what point am I good enough? What must be done before I can answer “What do you do?” with a confident, “I’m a writer.”
Is any of this resonating with you? Maybe you aren’t a perfectionist, but something else holds you back or paralyzes you. It may have nothing to do with writing either, but have an affect on some other aspect of your life. If you face similar struggles, I hope the rest of this post, and Part 2 to follow, help untie your knots, just as these truths have begun to loosen mine.
As I face these fears and ponder these perfectionistic tendencies, I have stumbled upon some encouraging words.
“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.” – Robert Cormier
This clashes a bit with my perfectionism. Is Cormier really claiming it’s ok to get it less than perfect? Yet, it’s true. Writing can always be improved, and that’s ok. If my wordsmith skills fail to turn a phrase properly, it has less consequence than the improper turn of a surgeon’s scalpel. What’s the big deal? I should accept the need for rewrites and the occasional bad idea. I should accept the fact that I won’t get it right every time and, the first time, I usually won’t. (I apologize to all perfectionistic brain surgeons reading this. I realize this is no help in your struggles.)
A quote from the King (of writing, not rock ‘n roll) helped cut through my insecurities of worth. In the blunt style he uses throughout On Writing, Stephen asks on page 235:
“Do you need someone to make you a paper badge with the word WRITER on it before you can believe you are one?”
Ok. I get it. I suppose I can call myself a writer if my work has not reached the best-seller lists and Kerry Nenn is not a household name. I suppose I can write even if my work is less than perfect. I can do my best, and continue to strive to do better. While everything I write will not be great, I will keep practicing and improving my craft. I suppose I can do all of this if I never accomplish more than the blogging and freelancing I am doing this week.
With these thoughts in mind, my desire is to no longer fear failure, imperfection, or unworthiness. These are unwelcome guests in my home, and I have decided to evict them. As I work on building and improving my writer’s cottage, I confidently say:
I am a good writer, hoping to some day be a great writer.