The Antidote for Perfectionism

I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’m limiting the amount of perfection I’ll allow in my daily thoughts, my interactions with my friends and family, and in my creative process. Limiting, not banning, because perfectionism is an extreme disease. It feeds on phrases like “always” and “never” and “can’t” and “must.” My perfectionism would have a field day with an all out ban. Recovering from perfectionism means being more gentle with yourself and everyone around you. It means getting comfortable with flaws. Your flaws. Their flaws. Minor flaws. And sometimes glaring flaws. It means learning that mistakes are sometimes beautiful. Like a lot of people–women especially, but men are not immune to this–my perfectionism has been both my friend and foe over the years. Maybe that resonates with you. Maybe you’re like me and your perfectionism has earned you fantastic grades or awards or trophies over the years. But maybe you are reaching a point where you see your perfectionism as a shiny idol that you are worshipping at the expense of your creative zest–which is exactly where I’ve found myself this past year.

We perfectionists have a lot of er… *issues* with letting go, don’t we?

We tell ourselves that perfection is an ideal and that we’re just trying to improve ourselves. But then we go too far. We start acting from a place of fear instead of a healthy drive to tune up our weaknesses. Before we know it, that fear takes over and begins driving us. It’s a little Body Snatchery in that you’re kind of sleeping when it happens. At it’s core, perfectionism is not an ideal at all, and it’s certainly not self-improvement. It’s the embodiment of a fear of not being enough. Or even of being too much sometimes. I’ve seen it both ways. We’re either building ourselves up to an impossible standard, or trying to rein in our uniqueness. All so SOMEONE ELSE will accept us. (Not really. We’re only seeking external validation because we aren’t validating ourselves.) Either way, perfectionism becomes a prison. You become so locked in the fear of other people’s judgement and criticism that you start to judge and criticize yourself before anyone else even has a chance. It creates a hostile environment in your heart and mind. It poisons your confidence. And that dampens your ability to even RECOGNIZE, much less SHARE, those little things of beauty that only YOU can make. And before you know it, you can’t create anymore. Because why bother if you can’t get it just so?

If you’re a perfectionist, too, try this: next time you create something, and you feel the old tendency to prejudge it creeping in, just stop it and take a deep breath. Don’t look for any flaws right away. Everything has flaws and if you look for them, you’ll find them–you’ll find just about anything you go looking for. True?  (Except hundred dollar bills. I’ve been looking for one of those for years. Still haven’t come across one in lint trap or the couch. BUT I have found lots of receipts for $100 which proves I had $100 AT ONE TIME. *sigh*) ANYWAYS. There is going to be a time for flaw hunting if you stick with your craft–receiving and working with criticism is absolutely part of being an artist. But a perfectionist is actually ill prepared for the job. You don’t need to be your own worst enemy to handle that crap. You need to be your own BFF. FIRST THING, before you slip into your self critical self sabotage mode, look for what’s GOOD about it. What did you work hard on that came out pretty good? What flowed out of you like water?  What do YOU like about it? What made you want to share this thing or feeling with the world to begin with?

Now just sit with that for a minute. That feeling? Is confidence. Confidence is a calm, warm, stable feeling in your solar plexus–the area of your belly right over your navel. Your guts. We call confident people “gutsy” because of this association. There is no wiggle room in this feeling. It doesn’t quiver, spin, or shake. It’s solid and nice and you don’t have to feel around for it for very long because chances are if you’re confident, you’re getting stuff done in that area. Confidence isn’t stuck up or defensive. It’s not a prideful or stubborn attachment to ourselves and our own way of thinking. It’s this nice secure feeling. It’s the knowledge that this might not be perfect–in fact, it probably isn’t–but I think it’s pretty darn sweet. And when you’re feeling that? It’s the best time to improve your work. Not when you’re fearful of others noticing that you’re work is flawed.


MFA for Breakfast

It took me years to admit I wanted an MFA in creative writing. I mean, YEARS. When I first graduated college, I would have laughed in your face if you told me I’d be willing to write admissions essays and fill out that stupid FAFSA again. But by the time my sons were starting school, I started feeling the itch. I read a lot of publishing blogs back then, and this one blogger girl was embarking on MY DAYDREAM LIFE. (Not the dream life I thought I could actually have. Please note, I actually went after that one. Sort of.) Anyhow, while I was cleaning up Legos, soaking my whites, and vacuuming goldfish crackers out of the sofa in between chapters of my first two novels, this young woman was actually working for a lit agent, talking about books and publishing and all sorts of intelligent sounding things, and I’d think, well isn’t she just a whipper-snapper? I’ll have what she’s having. Turns out she was having MFA for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Before I knew it, I was window shopping grad schools, admiring studious faculty headshots, studying course outlines, and thinking, “I think I could do this, but could I get in?”

Well, flash forward five years later, and this gal was long gone from the blog scene. I can only fantasize that she is now living a wildly successful life of lit agentry, editing for a major publisher, or sitting pretty on some best seller list under her real name which I don’t know. The reality may be that she is vacuuming goldfish out of her sofa, but I respect that, too. As for me, five years later? I was farther along in my dream job (which turns out is a bit of a nightmare, boring paper-shuffling variety, hold the hot vampires), and STILL looking at the same damn website, daydreaming about getting my graduate degree. Only difference was this: now I was thinking, “Damn it, I know I can get in, and I can do this, but will my family stand by me if we go broke while I do it?”

I hemmed and hawed for another year, people. Because slow and painful is how I roll. During the aforementioned year, I changed jobs three times, trying to get my happy back, and ultimately ending up in exactly the same place I started but with much less seniority. And then it finally hit me why the job changes didn’t take, and why I was still feeling like crap. I needed to be in school. I needed to be writing. I needed to be in school for writing, studying the thing that I didn’t study the first time around because it seemed so impractical–the thing that I love doing the most.

So I applied to Stonecoast at USM last year and was accepted into the Popular Fiction program starting January 2015. I was sick with nerves all fall, wondering if I’d bitten off more than I could chew, doubting my ability to hold my own. And then my first residency in January happened, and not to sound completely corny or anything–OKAY, WHATEVER, IT’S CORNY–I knew for the first time in a long time that I was exactly where I was meant to be. And since then, things have started lining up that I hadn’t thought possible.

On some level, I wish I had applied sooner, so that maybe I could have skipped almost eight years of confusion and bad days. But on another level completely, I know the timing just lined up for me because I was ready to change my perspective. I was ready to do something. And now I’m thinking about writing from a totally different place than I was just a year ago. Not very long ago, I only wanted the publishing contract. I thought I’d be happy just to see that bunch of books on the shelves with my name on the spines. I still want that. But I’m seeing that there is a lot more work to do on the writing scene than just turning out books. There are a lot of writers out there who are struggling with the idea of putting their needs first. I see writers who don’t think they’re good enough. I see writers who don’t know how to take the next steps to get what they want. And I see so many, many really good writers who might be missing the stars just by not shooting a little higher and expecting more from themselves.

As I’m switching professional gears to put writing first in my own life, I want to help other writers make the decision to do the same in their own time. And meanwhile, I want to encourage them to never give up on their writing. Because giving up on your writing is like giving up on yourself. And that’s just not an option.



Do You Have A Prewriting Ritual?

Housecleaning is part of my writing process. People always tell me to leave the dishes in the sink and the dust-bunnies on the stairs, as if there’s something pathological about needing to clean first. For a while, I believed them and tried to force myself to just sit down and write when I had ten minutes. But I could never get in the zone like that. It’s like pulling teeth. I don’t know how it is for you, but my mind is a pretty busy place. It’s like a multi-lane super highway in there. I can’t just throw myself into it. But it isn’t knowing the dishes are in the sink and the bathroom needs scrubbing that keeps me from writing. It’s actually more the other way around. It’s that the act of scrubbing is a kind of ritual. A meditation of sorts for those with busy hands. If it’s quiet while I’m cleaning up, my mind races at first, touching each noisy thought, soothing it and putting it to rest. At least for the time being. And then finally, if I keep at it long enough, my hamster wheel brain stops and I feel like a clear channel for the story that wants to come through. At that point, if left to my own devices, I will usually sit down and bang out some pages.

I can’t always clean the entire house before I write. It’s a bummer, but most of the time, it’s just not quiet and calm enough at home for me to get in the zone at all. But I’m not going to beat myself up about that anymore. My kids are getting bigger, and someday I’ll have nothing but quiet time to clean and write. In the meantime, I try to seize the day when I know I’ll have the house to myself. I just wish I had understood this a long time ago instead of trying to force myself into someone else’s ideal writing scenario. I spent a lot of time staring at my blinking cursor, telling myself if I was a real writer, I’d write something every day.

So in short, I hope you’ll trust your own process as you discover it. Special chairs, scented candles, brisk walks, warm tea… A lot of people have prewriting rituals. Feel free to explore and try other people’s ideas to the extent that you want to. Try to create some workarounds for when situations aren’t ideal. But don’t let anyone tell you that what works best for you is silly.