I was raised in a family where there's a right way and a wrong way, and great woe to the one who chose the wrong way. It was my early training program in perfectionism.
I learned to figure out what the right way was, and always do that. It was safer that way. And easier.
But it wasn't very creative. And it certainly didn't foster much in the way of independent thinking.
Over the years I've gotten better and better about doing things -- including writing -- even when I can do them far less than perfectly. I've learned to be willing to make mistakes, to try things, to "ship" before I'm ready, to create tons of accountability for myself so I can push through where I used to get stuck in the past, and to live more on my own creative edge.
So imagine my surprise in discovering that my own perfectionism was alive and well -- raging even -- this year.
It's an evil thing, perfectionism. So sweet at times. We'll talk about "a perfect day" with a sigh -- and we mean it, it was lovely and delicious and wonderful, everything felt just right. But how do we go from that to the paralyzed inaction of perfectionism when we can't figure out the exact right thing to write?
The insidious nature of perfectionism
For the record, perfectionism is defined as a “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” It means having such impossibly high standards that nothing can ever measure up.
And it mucks up many aspects of our lives, including our relationships, finances, parenting, self-care, health habits, and especially our creativity. It rips holes in our self-esteem and our productivity if we let it.
Let's talk about how perfectionism works in a creative process:
- Perfectionism triggers procrastination. If we don't know the answer in a creative project, we often stop and wait until we can figure it out (or bang our heads against the wall trying to solve it before proceeding). If it doesn't feel right it must therefore be wrong, but what could the right answer be? This can trigger a kind of obsessive procrastination that sometimes looks productive, but isn't -- researching, discussing, debating, thinking about -- instead of writing.
- Perfectionism feels safer. If I can't get it done perfectly, then I won't do it at all. It's a very black and white, fixed mindset that doesn't allow for learning, growth, or much creativity. (Creativity is MESSY!)
- Perfectionism leads to paralysis. If we procrastinate long enough, waiting for the right answers, we can stumble into a lasting paralysis. I don't know what to do, I can't do anything. I'm blocked! I can't figure out which way to go. I better stay right here.
- Perfectionism keeps us from getting feedback. Perfectionists are often extremely reluctant to share our work with anyone or ask for feedback on it. We are terrified of finding out it's not good enough, not done yet, and will require more work. More work that we can hardly bear to do because it's so painstaking. What if they hate my writing? What if I'm not as good as I should be and they can tell? What if they find out that I am an impostor? Ironically, perfectionists often reject the feedback they receive as well, usually as "not good enough".
- Perfectionism keeps us from finishing. There's nothing like not finishing to guarantee that no one will notice that the work is less than perfect. It's much, much "safer" not to finish. It's not living up to what I imagined it would be. It just feels wrong. I'm stuck. I can't finish. I'll never finish. There's no point. But not finishing creates self-doubt and its own kind of paralysis: I must not love writing enough. I'm not a real writer.
- Perfectionism is an escape hatch. This is a tricky one that Corey Mandell talks about. We sometimes use perfectionism to let us off the hook. We create situations where we "don't have enough time" to get it done perfectly so we phone it in, require less of ourselves, or rush to do it all at the last minute. So when we turn in less-than-our-best work, we have an excuse for why we couldn't live up to our own impossibly high standards.
Three antidotes for perfectionism
I've recently experienced a perfect storm of three different antidotes for perfectionism that came together in a powerful way.
Antidote #1: Think of perfectionism as just one of many ways to write
One of my mentors, Hal Croasmun of ScreenwritingU, has been talking about perfectionism in the Master Screenwriting Certificate program I'm taking. I've been hearing him talk about it for months, but honestly? I kept telling myself that I knew better than to fall for my own perfectionism and that I wasn't falling for it, because I was still writing.
But I was also writing more slowly than I wanted to be writing, and I was finding that I was struggling to "figure out" a lot of my story. The answers weren't coming easily, and I kept finding myself in rabbit hole after rabbit hole of confusion and overthinking.
When Hal described perfectionism as "just one of many processes" we can use as writers, I started seeing it in a new way.
He says we have many methods to choose from when we write, and perfectionism is an excellent tool for our final, polished draft. But it is not a good tool for getting our first drafts written.
He got me thinking about how I was going about my writing process: I was going along, completing the assignments he had given us, and any time I hit a place I was confused, I would stop, and try to figure it out. Sounds pretty normal, right? But what I wasn't noticing were all the arguments I was having with myself while I was doing that, like:
- You have to get this right or people will think you don't know what you're doing.
- You should have gotten a science degree if you were serious about writing sci-fi.
- It won't be real sci-fi, it'll just be a crummy space opera. (For the record I love space operas.)
- You need to do a ton more research.
- You've got to know exactly how this world works or it'll never make sense and the whole script will fall apart.
But after listening to Hal on the subject of perfectionism, I realized that what I was doing was trying to protect myself from failure and rejection by trying to get it done perfectly. But by doing so, I was also stopping myself from moving ahead and was falling further and further behind in class, which is not in alignment with what I actually want.
And something fell into place for me. Finally landed.
Hal has been telling us from the start of the program to give ourselves permission to write crap (I tell people this too, for goodness sakes!) and that if we don't know the answer to something, to either leave it blank or put down a guess and just move on. I made a vow to myself to do exactly that. To work with my outline and my writing process in a more experimental, exploratory way -- a different way to write -- while I'm working through this first draft.
Antidote #2: "Anything other than writing must come after writing."
"It’s very easy to do a lot of things and feel productive but, at the end, not be productive. This includes:
- editing as you go
- world building
- networking/social media
- marketing (before the book is done)
- talking about writing
- reading about writing
That’s not to say these are universally unproductive or unnecessary -- but really, when you’re working on a first draft, your best and strongest foot forward is: Write. Nothing else. Produce words. Jam words into sentences. Cram sentences into paragraphs. Paragraphs into chapters. Chapters into stories. Anything other than writing must come after writing."
What if my "solutions" for my perfectionism-driven fears were manifesting as these kinds of sidetracks? What if instead I just focused on getting it down, rather than figuring it out, as Julia Cameron says?
I made another vow. No more editing. No more researching. No more looking up words in the dictionary.
Just doing the writing.
Antidote #3: You're not allowed to hate it until it's done.
I also found myself having an illuminating inner conversation last Monday morning.
After my first two vows, I'd been happily outlining on Sunday night, moving along, Getting It Done.
But then when I woke up on the next day, I found myself thinking, "I hate this script."
(I believe it is highly significant that I was having these thoughts while not working on the project. I find that I get into more trouble with my work when I'm not working on it than when I'm actually putting pen to page or fingers to keyboard.)
My negative thought-stream went on for a few minutes but then I caught myself, realizing that it was NOT helping me.
So instead I decided, "I am not allowed to hate this script until it is finished. Then I can decide what I think of it. And only then."
After all, even the Pixar folks know you don't really know what you have until something is finished... and then you rewrite!
What if it's TRULY okay not to know the answers?
When this all connected, I realized that I could drastically pick up the pace of my writing if I really, truly, honestly just gave myself permission to NOT KNOW THE ANSWERS. To go with my best ideas, trust myself that I would fix it later if it didn't work, and to move on.
I found myself blazing through my outline as a result, leaving question marks, blank spots, and DKs where I was stuck. (DK = Don't Know, which is easily searchable in a draft since "DK" is an unlikely letter combination.) And I also -- to my surprise and delight -- started coming up with new ideas and solutions for issues I'd been trying to solve in my head rather than through the process of writing.
Since then I've wrapped up my outline and starting writing pages for the script, and it's going faster than I've written in a long time.
It's filled with notes and flaws and details to come.
And that's totally okay.
Because the biggest win in this small segment of my writing journey is that I'm LOVING the process of writing again. And that's worth more to me than just about anything.
What's your perfectionism recovery story? Let us know in the comments!