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.

Rebecca Taylor on sabtwitterRebecca Taylor on sabfacebook
Rebecca Taylor
Rebecca Taylor is the author of:
ASCENDANT (winner of the 2014 Colorado Book Award)
MIDHEAVEN
THE EXQUISITE AND IMMACULATE GRACE OF CARMEN ESPINOZA.

Her newest title, AFFECTIVE NEEDS, is now available.

She lives in Colorado with her husband and two children. In addition to writing, she works as a faculty mentor at Regis University’s Mile High MFA program.

Learn more about her and her work at www.rebeccataylorbooks.com

8 thoughts on “The Plague and Power of Perfectionism

  1. Welcome to the blog, Rebecca! What a “perfect” first blog! 😀 Seriously, hearty congratulations on the Colorado Book Award win, and thank you for sharing your insights with us. We all need to be shaken “outside of the box” now and then. My theory on typos: they’re impossible to eradicate. Even the Wall Street Journal, a publication I’ve always admired, has at least one typo every day, and they have a big professional staff. That said, a sprinkling of typos reflects poorly on my story and my professionalism, so though I know I can’t attain it, I at least strive for perfection. “Struggling past flawed” — I love that!

  2. “…it can also hold you prisoner”. And how!

    Many years ago, in the ’80’s, I was part of a “Writers Group” in rural Washington. A good group, mostly published authors, some with many titles under their name. Every week we’d read our latest and go around the table and critique. I was well into a fantasy novel that everyone thought was great. Everyone but me. To me it wasn’t “just right” enough, and I began endless rewriting of chapters. Then life’s deck got reshuffled and dealt me a new hand. I quit writing in order to deal with it. And the book was never finished. Until a couple years later when I saw it on TV! Everything about it was the same, Even the title and the central character’s name, her personality and and life. Everything I had always known about her. It was, “Xena, the Warrior Princess”.

    Obviously that story was in the ether, but my perfectionism never let me get it told!

    True story.

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