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.
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2 thoughts on “Perfection paralysis

  1. Wow! Great blog post! Full of honesty & insight! Proud to have helped inspire it, Victoria! Much better than a 140 character answer! Wish you many hours of enjoyment with your writing! 🙂

    Like

  2. Thank you for sharing your feelings on the subject. From my experience, perfectionism is the one driving force behind my fear. I feel it’s this need to be perfect that paralyzed me to not finish stories. Recently, I decided to discontinue a project I hadn’t really started. At first, I attributed it to not having stories that had a lot of conflict. I thought people didn’t want to read just vignettes. But then, someone brought up an idea I hadn’t thought of. before: there was a lot of pressure of representing an idea the right way. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right. I wanted to represent a culture perfectly. I didn’t want to come off as someone who just made stuff up. And once I accepted the fact I couldn’t please everybody, the better I felt about writing my stories.

    The feeling of wanting to be perfect remains, but it doesn’t have to be crippling, unless you allow it. Once we get over those feelings, we can get back the passion we had before those feelings set in.

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