Perfection paralysis

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Rosetta Yorke, one of the curators of the #turtlewriters group, asked me how I got beyond the arresting need for perfection in my writing, and the answer was a too complicated for a 164 character limit. So, I thought I’d write it out here (fair warning, it’s a bit of a stream of consciousness).

It’s a problem a lot of writers seem to suffer with. You want what you write to be good. So much so that you can alter the same sentence again and again and never be satisfied with it. Or in my case, you become so worried about it being good that nothing you write seems to match up to your high standards, and so rather than fail to meet them, you don’t write at all. Small doses of perfectionism are healthy. It is what makes us hone our craft. But beyond a certain point it is paralysing.

I came to that point and I struggled with it for a while. No WIP got very far, and my dear friend Phil (my ever-patient writing think-tank) was probably getting very bored of seeing these things spark brightly only to fizzle out of existence when I inevitably hit that wall. About ten months ago, I had given up on my previous WIP and was casting about for a new idea. Although finished by then, I’d also been working on my masters dissertation looking at storytelling tools in museums. I spent a whole chapter dissecting why storytelling is important, right from a physiological level to an emotional one. It was enlightening – storytelling could do all these things! I wanted my stories to do the thing!

Phil and I were bouncing ideas for a new project back and forth, and I had a mental epiphany. It wasn’t a lightning bolt, but a creeping awareness that rose over the course of the conversation.

I realised that I was so crippled by perfection paralysis that I didn’t even enjoy writing any more. I was looking for an idea because I knew I had to write something, but nothing seemed right, and I almost didn’t want to start only to fail again. I wanted so much from my WIPs: for them to be good enough to publish, to make even a little extra money to ease my then financial situation. To be big, and bold, and beautiful, and to make readers feel all those huge and wonderful things I felt sometimes when reading other people’s work. Lofty goals, seldom reached, and that was awfully depressing.

Writing had become a chore.

I was aghast. Where was the passion? Where was the fun? Where was that connection to storytelling that saw me writing pages and pages just for the sheer hell of it? Storytelling had been a central part of my identity for so long but I’d lost sight of it.

I was also at the time starting to come out of the other side of a really rough few years during which I felt like I put my entire life, all of my wants, needs and happiness, on hold in order to get myself and those close to me through it. This realisation about writing came hand in hand with the realisation that I wanted to be a little bit selfish too, just sometimes, and have some things just for myself.

Phil, bless his cotton socks, agreed with me. He told me it was okay not to be BBB (big, bold, beautiful) all the time, and that it was okay to be selfish in writing too. Yeah, I thought. Yeah, it is okay, isn’t it? Everyone else gets to do it. Goddamn, I am going to be selfish, and I am going to enjoy it.

So, instead of writing what I thought other people wanted to read, I started writing what I wanted to read. I read a lot of things, but the ones I enjoy the most have some things in common: a sharp, often dry humour, adventure, romance, a bit of escapism. I also have a lifelong interest in the under-explored mythology of my country (the UK) that I was keen to finally explore.

So I did. I started writing something to satisfy the craving for the type of story that I wanted to get lost in. Fuck what everyone else wants.

I actually wrote the end scene first. It was the first time any WIP of mine really had an ending, and by god was that a liberating feeling. There was a goal to work towards, a light in the darkness to steer this ship towards the home stretch. I went back after that and began writing from the beginning.

In ten months, I have written about 28k words. More than any other WIP has achieved in a long time. I’m still writing, but I’m not stressing myself out over word count goals. I have a busy life, and I work a lot, and more often than not I have no hope of meeting goals. It used to upset me so much that I’d set them and fall behind. Every. Single. Time. Now, though, I’ve taken the pressure off myself. Nobody is asking me to do this. I don’t have a deadline to meet. It’ll get done when it gets done, in however many words it takes.

I started writing again and found that actually, my writing is good. Phil always told me so (and also told me when it wasn’t), but there’s always that thirst to be given praise by someone else, a stranger, who hasn’t seen all the failures beforehand. It feels more honest that way. But actually, (and if I can’t say it here, where else can I say it?) I think I’m pretty damn good.

Oh, it doesn’t always come out that way first time. Some bits are clunky, half formed, or miss the mark completely. Other parts are stupid, or awkward, or terrible. But overall, my writing is lively, occasionally funny, relateable and appealing. I like it. It’s something I actually want to read. Sentences can be fixed, paragraphs smoothed. Just write, I said to myself. Slog through the crap: you know that the crap comes out when your brain is tired and foggy and stressed, or when you don’t know how to handle a scene, so come back and fix it when you’re firing on all cylinders again. When your brain is alight, your writing it very good, so it’s not like you can’t do it. You just can’t do it right now, and that’s okay. Everyone has off days, or weeks, or months. But the potential is there. So keep on keepin’ on, and this too shall pass. The sun will come out again.

I can’t offer very practical advice for those wrestling with perfectionism, only explain my own process. My writing is definitely not perfect. I know that. I’m good, but I will never be as good as the greats. That’s okay, though, because I am enjoying reading what I am writing. And that is the most important thing, right? Because if you’re not enjoying it, or at the very least getting something from the process, then what’s the point?

I think, for me at least, that’s the key for getting past it. Perfectionism was stopping me from enjoying writing the way I wanted to, so I kicked perfectionism in the balls, stole it’s wallet and walked away from it. And now I’m having fun.

Do Not Be Afraid

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For a long time, I wrote alone.

I had family. Friends. A partner. But the part of me liked to think myself a writer stood unnoticed and solitary behind the me that all those people knew.

There were lots of reasons for that separation of self. I thought, perhaps, people would view me differently if I they read the thoughts and emotions I reserved for spilling out on paper. I thought, by their knowing, a huge weight of expectation would drag me into immobility. I thought, given my chronic inability to finish anything, they’d look on each new project knowing its fate from the first few words. I limped along, craving some recognition, some support, wavering on the brink but never quite making that final leap of faith.

Sometimes, I’d try diving in the deep end, throwing myself into NaNoWriMo or other online communities where no one knew me and, if the inevitable happened and a project petered out or life got in the way, there was no recompense to be made. These forays were always short-lived as the inevitable did, indeed, happen.

I’m not really sure when that started to change, but I know who changed it. One friend took an interest while at university. We both finished our studies, he moved away, but we still spoke almost every day. He told me his highs and lows as he made his games, and slowly I began to open up to him about my writing. He listened as I tried and failed to make my writing fulfil everything I wanted it to be, and he was there for the light-bulb moment when I realised what I wanted was not what I needed. And he has been there ever since.

That person is still my creative rock, my first and last port of call. But there was yet a little worm of frustration deep inside me. He is my friend, but my best friend, my partner, still wasn’t taking any notice. We’d argue about it: I wanted him to want to read my work, not to have to pester him to take an interest. I love my partner but he doesn’t always think about these things.

From that frustration grew rebellion. If he wasn’t going to pay attention, I’d find it elsewhere. I took to Twitter, where my secret alter-ego could run free, and Twitter led me to a group of critiquing partners.

I was nervous to post at first. I wrote and deleted my submission several times, wondering if I’d be able to commit or keep up, or how I would handle a critique. My WIP still felt like a baby, and I wanted to wrap it in soft cotton wool.

I shouldn’t have worried. Every single person, down to a tweet and an email, has been wonderful.

Suddenly, I was not alone. Suddenly, a whole world opened up, filled with supportive, like-minded people who gave me the confidence to finally say: I am a writer.

If I could send past-me a message from the future, and indeed anyone out there in the wild blue yonder reading this post, it would be: Do Not Be Afraid.

Sometimes the writing community can be intimidating and competitive, but this is deeply overshadowed by the enormous amount of love also going round. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your fellow writers. Don’t be afraid to call yourself a writer. We’ve all done the bravest thing possible – picking up that pen, tapping at that keyboard – and that makes us all equal.

Some days writing can be like squeezing blood from a stone, and everything you write seems like shit, but I promise it will get better, and I promise there are people out there who can help show you that.

If you need a critique, a review, a cheerleader, or just a friend, feel free to drop me a line. I know what it’s like write alone, but now you don’t have to.