The Plague and Power of Perfectionism

First off, thank you RMFW for inviting me to be a regular contributor to this blog. RMFW has played an important role in my writing career over the years—I’m grateful that I now get to participate with the organization in a more regular way.

Before making the switch to full time writer, I worked as a psychologist. I feel it is a career that has benefited me a thousand times over when it comes to not only my writing, but my understanding of writers in general.

Because we are an interesting bunch—on that, I’m sure we can all agree.

There are many personality types drawn to the profession of writing. A weekend spent at any writers’ conference will convince you that we run the gamut from stodgy to bizarre—and even at times evidence the ability to be bizarrely-stodgy.

I both love and find myself fascinated by writers.

In all my years writing, and talking with writers, and thinking about writers, I feel that there is one particular personality trait that has the potential to either serve you or slay you and your creative endeavors.

Perfectionism.

Now I know plenty of people, non-writers too, who tout their perfectionistic ways and natures. They love their highly controlled world of “just so” and “the right way” because it lines up, is correct, and runs from A-Z with an exacting precision that smacks of I’m in control.

Because who doesn’t like to be in control?

Perfectionists strive for the flawless.

Perfectionists hold themselves and others to incredibly high, sometimes impossible standards.

Perfectionists are often thought of as extremely conscientious and “ideal” by society at large.

The problem with this character trait, frequently praised and even admired by those of us less perfectionistic by nature, is that it can also hold you prisoner. When it comes to going after your dreams, perfectionism can jail you for a very long time with no hope for parole.

Because the simple truth is that no one, not even you, is perfect.

No.

Not even if you catch all the typos.

Not even if you see the every flaw.

Not even if you clutch with white knuckled fists to all the rules.

Perfect is not realistic, sustainable, or even happy. It is a world where there is no room for mistakes even though mistakes are a vital component of the learning and growth process.

Perfectionists sometimes measure themselves and others, a person’s worth as an individual, by their accomplishments. Perfect is usually a horrible judgmental harpy—most often looking in the mirror, probably harder on themselves than anyone else.

Perfect is also, and probably most importantly, the killer of creativity. It will always talk you out of trying something outside the box. Taking that risk. Daring to try. You may even feel like a slave to your own exacting judgment. Never free to take a creative risk. Terrified of “others” who you fear will condemn you and your creative choices just as harshly as you judge others.

As harshly as you judge yourself.

Many writers who struggle with this can often point a laser at what is wrong with other people’s work, but are incapable of committing their own story to the page because they may never allow themselves to be vulnerable enough with that horrible first draft.

Now if you happen to be a perfectionist, the news isn’t all bad. In fact, you have some amazing strengths and rightly deserve all our admiration and acclaim, once you can wield that X-Acto knife instead of being kept hostage by it.

Mistakes are not bad; they are how we learn.

Allowing your flawed work a place to exist in your world is how every writer starts any book, short story, narrative poem—you name it. Struggling past flawed to better is how we grow as writers. Not a one of us is fully formed.

Perfectionism is a powerful tool, so use it to serve your purposes.

Writers in particular can benefit greatly from their exacting attention to details when counterbalanced with allowing themselves creative freedoms first. It can be a gift, but only if you’re in charge of it. You need to use it instead of allowing it to keep you from trying.

At best, the perfectionist can unleash beautiful and mighty work into the world.

And at the very least, you’re already most editor’s dream.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Rebecca Taylor

By Rebecca TaylorThe Exquisite and Immaculate Grace of Carmen Espinoza

Yesterday, I uploaded my most recent book, The Exquisite and Immaculate Grace of Carmen Espinoza, to Kindle—Yes, I self published it. And as I, only hours later took it down to make changes (I suspect it won’t be the last time) I wondered:

Why don’t more writers make the leap into self-publishing?

I thought about it all day and here’s what I came up with:

  1. In truth, self-publishing still reeks a bit of failure (if you think it has completely lost all stigma, then you’re not looking hard enough outside the self publishing community. Like it or not, self publishing is still judged pretty harshly in some circles, especially the ones surrounded by the high gates of traditional publishing. There are only two things that truly mask this odor: Winning legitimate awards and big sales.
  2. If you do it right, it’s a ton of work. It can be super easy and not at all a ton of work if you just take your first draft, upload it to Kindle, and slap one of their cover generated images in front of it. Of course, if you do it that way you should also expect to get out what you put in—which is almost nothing.
  3. And finally, and this I think is the big reason why many don’t take the plunge, you stand completely alone beside your work, taking a huge risk that, even after all your labors the only sound to reach your ears is the eerie silence of your one hand clapping (the other one is, of course, occupied holding up your book to a world that doesn’t give a shish.)

Yes, number three, lack of self-confidence, I suspect it is the real reason why many writers don’t give it a go—of course this may be simply because it was the real reason why I didn’t.

Confession: I am always a little bit in awe of someone in possession of flagrant self confidence. I watch them, without even the slightest hesitation of self doubt, they will happily spread their feathers befor2000 x 1333e you and shimmy—it has been my experience that these people are usually connected to the theatre in someway.

When that self-possessed someone happens to be a writer—well I’m flat out flabbergasted to be in the presence of such a rare bird.

In March of this year, I sat on a publishing panel answering a variety of questions from writers. Towards the end of the session, one young woman approached the microphone and asked, “What one piece of advice do you have for aspiring writers?”

Now, there are many, many good answers to this question: Write, Don’t give up, Learn the craft, etc, etc. But what popped out of my mouth was, “Toughen up.”

Yes, find those bootstraps and pull them hard because the truth of the matter is, if you are still a walking wound of self-doubt, anxiety, and crippling insecurities when your first book, traditional publisher or no, comes out—that first three star review is going to knock you to your knees. And that one star, the one with the especially snarky, and yet cleverly crafted, dissertation-length review, may likely drive you from your dreams of writing anything ever again.

I think many writers, who might otherwise be interested in the allures of self publishing, still avoid it because they believe having a publisher (regardless of the publisher’s size and actual knowledge of the publishing business) is going to fill that void, that empty gaping hole where the writer should believe in themselves, and their work. That acceptance acts like a Band-Aid of, “Look, it’s not just me…someone else likes my book too.”

And maybe that Band-Aid will be enough.

But I will tell you, if this is how you are going to prop yourself up, by leaning against the facade of traditional legitimacy, all it will take for it to all disappear is for fickle winds of favor to start blowing the other way.

And then, where does that leave you?

Ever heard the tale of the traditionally published debut author that didn’t sell enough books to earn out his meager advance? It left him with no sales, no offer for that next book, and no confidence in his ability. Even with traditional publishing, nothing is guaranteed!

Self-confidence is an absolute MUST in this business.

Be bold! Stare the very real potential of deafening silence in the face and say, “I’m not afraid of you.” Once you face that fear, whatever yours may be, it can’t hold you in paralysis any more.

When it’s ready, when you’re ready, get your work out there anyway you can. If a traditional publisher wants to stand with you—great! Just don’t fool yourself into thinking they’re going to sit up with you in the middle of the night and rock you back to sleep.

Kind of like your kids, no one will ever care about your work as much as you do. (except your mother—for both examples.)

This is just my opinion, but I happen to think you have to stand at the center of your writing career and act as the captain of your own ship—no agent or editor is going to do that for you.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to talk you out of your Big Five dream—I don’t think self-publishing is for everyone. Truth be told, I actually hope it’s not the only avenue forever open to me because I’m probably the first writer in line to lick the feet of a Random Penguin should it happen to deign glance in my direction. I still want my books in Barnes and Noble just a bad as you do.

But, if it turns out that the publishing powers that be don’t want me there, I’m not afraid to stand alone, book in hand, and brace myself for silence. My biggest fear is not that I will make a fool of myself—it’s that I will stop trying.

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Rebecca Taylor 2000X3000Rebecca Taylor is the young adult author of ASCENDANT, a recently selected finalist for the 2014 Colorado Book Award. The second book in the Ascendant series, MIDHEAVEN, will release in 2014 and her standalone novel, THE EXQUISITE AND IMMACULATE GRACE OF CARMEN ESPINOZA, is now available.

You can find more information about her work at: Web: www.rebeccataylorbooks.com, Blog: www.rebeccataylorbooks.blogspot.com,  Twitter: https://twitter.com/RebeccaTaylorED,  Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/Rebeccataylor, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RebeccaTaylorBooks, Wattpad: http://www.wattpad.com/user/RebeccaTaylorED