breaking the perfectionist

Perfectionism is a cruel trait to have inherited.

It’s a debilitating disease that cleverly disguises itself as being meticulous, competent, and confident.  The desire to always be right and flawless comes from the root of fear.  The fear of failure.

The attempt to write this novel has proven to be an eye opening experience on how perfectionism has ruled my life, for better and for worse.  As a writer and English major, I’ve learned over the years that there a few crucial stages in the writing process: the brainstorming, outlining, writing, editing, and the revising stage.  My writing process may be a bit different from others. I’m the sort of writer who tends to edit as she writes – even at this very moment.  In writing, the idea is for words to convey a message and to be succinct.  This is more so in poetry, with the drastically shortened length, than in any other written form.

That doesn’t sound so bad, at first glance.  Editing your writing is a good process.  What you end up with is a good solid piece of text, with all of the excessive words, articles, and sentences cleanly omitted and deleted.  Trimming the fat.

But what happens when internal editing is all you do?  When focusing on finding the “right words to say” prevent you from using other words or ideas?  Creativity is stifled.  When creativity is halted, for fear of failure or being wrong or not being good enough, what happens?  Nothing happens.  Nothing gets written.  Nothing never gets the chance to even become a something.

Over the past years, I’ve had many fleeting ideas of stories, poems, and articles.  Those ideas eventually collect dust or lie around incomplete because I either grew dissatisfied with the beginning, decided I didn’t have enough skill, or became discouraged with not “having the right words.”  I definitely had a problem, but it wasn’t the problem that I initially thought. My problem wasn’t that I couldn’t write well, or that I wasn’t competent (though I certainly entertained those reasons at that time).  My problem was that I was afraid to fail.  So much so that I gave up even before I gave myself a chance.  I naively believed that if I prevented failure, I was still in the safety zone.  I could still feel good about myself because I haven’t failed yet.

The real failure is not even trying.

With this novel writing challenge, mistakes are encouraged.  Expected, even!  And that’s okay, so long as you WRITE.  It was such a radical way of approaching writing for me, that I was hooked on the idea.  The emphasis is on the act of writing, not on the quality of writing.  And here’s the key behind the success of NaNoWriMo – If the pressure of writing a great literary piece of work was lifted, quantified instead of qualified, would it encourage people to write?  If mistakes are a key and expected part of the writing process, what wonderful things will this freedom allow you to write about?

Taken from Nanowrimo’s FAQ page:

Q: If I’m just writing 50,000 words of crap, why bother?  Why not just write a real novel later, when I have more time?

A: 1) If you don’t do it now, you probably never will. Novel writing is mostly a “one day” event. As in “One day, I’d like to write a novel.” Here’s the truth: 99% of us, if left to our own devices, would never make the time to write a novel. It’s just so far outside our normal lives that it constantly slips down to the bottom of our to-do lists. The structure of NaNoWriMo forces you to put away all those self-defeating worries and START.

2) Aiming low is the best way to succeed. With entry-level novel writing, shooting for the moon is the surest way to get nowhere. With high expectations, everything you write will sound cheesy and awkward. Once you start evaluating your story in terms of word count, you take that pressure off yourself. […] There will be much execrable prose, yes. But amidst the crap, there will be beauty. A lot of it.


It’s week 2 in this writing challenge and I am at 3,603 words. I’m still behind, but that’s okay.  I’ve written far more words than I would have in this month otherwise.  Much of it is quite awful.  But that’s still okay.  Learning to break my perfectionist habits is going to be a much longer process than the span of this month. And even when I complete this writing challenge, mistakes and all, it will still take a lot of “unlearning” to translate the acceptance of failure from the novel into other aspects of my life.  But through this writing process, it’s definitely a start.  And starting, as I’ve come to realize, is a much better approach to life than stopping.


1 Comment

Filed under epiphany, writing

One response to “breaking the perfectionist

  1. finally caught up with your happenings.

    “Good things come to those who wait, but only the things left behind by those who hustle.”
    — Abraham Lincoln

    i think you’ve exemplified that in the last few months.

    keep it up twin, there’s a whole new world to be conquered out there.

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