Perfectionism, Shame, and Writing
All writers, academic or otherwise, seem to struggle with these kind of thoughts. We want to write the perfect thing, create the perfect opening sentence, craft the perfect argument.
Perfectionism is a crippling pattern of belief that sabotages us at every turn. Our desire for perfection prevents us from reaching our writing dreams. We judge ourselves and our writing without mercy, disparaging both as not good enough. We feel paralyzed and unable to move forward. We can’t write because we fear that others will perceive us as being as flawed and as imperfect as our writing.
I wish some easy fix existed to cure perfectionism. People who struggle with perfectionism often find that it permeates every facet our lives. At heart, perfectionism reflects a deep struggle with issues of shame, a futile attempt to keep shame at bay.
I’m not a life coach or a therapist. I’m a writer and editor who helps people tell the stories they want to tell in effective and powerful ways. I also believe that writing can help us cope with perfectionism and shame when we draw on our courage and give ourselves permission to write in imperfect ways.
Writers often sit down at their computers to compose their masterpieces and find themselves unable to write a single word. They fear that their first words will be less than perfect. Their fear paralyzes them. They write nothing.
Free writing exercises help writers understand that their self-imposed expectations aren’t realistic. We cannot write dazzling opening lines, like that of One Hundred Years of Solitude, on the first try (“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”). My daily free writing used to (and sometimes still does) begin with the dumb sentence, “I don’t know what to write.” My belief that I had no ideas often turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy. I no longer let myself fixate on my lack of ideas. I know that I must write anything that comes to mind, no matter how dumb or poorly phrased. In the process of free writing, miracles often happen: ideas and thoughts develop as I write. Daily free writing has not stopped my perfectionism, but has helped me move past the sheer terror of staring at a blank page and blinking cursor.
Pick a topic. Start writing something, anything. Keep writing despite the nagging voice in your head. Don’t stop to think about what you’re writing or giving yourself to time to chastise yourself for your poor efforts. Just write. The faster the better. Keep writing quickly for thirty minutes or so. Do not stop to edit. Do not stop long enough to think about how imperfect your writing is. Keep moving, keep writing. Give yourself a high five—you’ve just written an imperfect piece!
Be bad at something.
I feel most prone to perfectionism when I’m practicing an activity that I have yet to master. I’m a better writer now than I’ve ever been, but writing still dredges up a host of awful feelings, including fear, shame, rejection, self-doubt, and anger. I started this blog a few months ago to share some of my ideas about writing. I continue to try to develop my blogging voice—is it friendly, funny, or authoritative? I still don’t know, but feel the nagging need to be seen and read as the perfect blog writer. Clicking the button to publish a post sometimes takes all of my courage, as I’m secretly (or more often, blatantly) terrified that other people will laugh at my ideas or my writing.
Nevertheless, I persist because blogging forces me to write through my penchant for perfectionism. I’m scared to post my writing and ideas about writing online. I’m not sure that blogging will ever feel comfortable. I’m still surprised that the sky doesn’t fall on my head every time I publish a new post. I’m learning that vulnerability is uncomfortable, but that it doesn’t have to stop me from acting and moving forward. I’m starting to give myself permission to be imperfect and learn.
Draw. Paint. Learn a musical instrument. Design a website. Learn to meditate. Give yourself permission to be learn to do new things imperfectly. Find something to be bad at.
Embrace the Shitty First Draft
Perfectionism kills creativity. Great writers know that no one produces great writing on the first, second, or even fifth tries. Ann Lamott makes a case for the value of the shitty first draft her very funny essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” in Bird by Bird.
Perfectionists struggle to produce first drafts because we cannot accept that our first attempts at writing will suck. We believe that people will think less of us if they knew what poor writers we really are. Writing the shitty first draft often involves huge feelings of angst and no small amount of crying. We need to stop believing that we can sidestep the painful messiness of the shitty first draft and produce brilliant writing the first time. We become good writers through the process of rewriting, but only when we let ourselves produce truly awful writing first.
I’m writing a truly awful draft of my first novel. The novel is the absolutely shittiest first draft ever. I will not show it to anyone. I’m horrified by what a poor novelist I am. I don’t want to learn to be a novelist; I just want to be one and drink wine and go to book signings. However, I keep writing the shitty first draft because I believe in the idea and like the story. The only way I will write a good novel is to first write a shitty one. A nagging voice in my head insists that I should be able to write a brilliant novel on the first try; I tell it to shut up. I’m working on my shitty first draft.
Seize the Moment
We wait for the perfect moment to write. We wait for the right time, when the stars and planets align themselves to spark a powerful chemical reaction that rips through the universe and strikes us with a bolt of pure genius. We wait, expecting to feel inspired, to feel like real writers. We wait for the perfect words to flow into our minds and out of our fingertips. We wait so long for those moments that the waiting becomes procrastinating. When I wrote my dissertation, I waited so long for the perfect moment to inspire me that I wrote exactly nothing for a long time.
The perfect moment has never existed and will never arrive. We think of writers as creative and artistic people who create greatness when struck with sudden flashes of brilliance. In truth, I know no one who writes this way. Writers do not produce great prose in stunning bursts of creativity. Instead, they write when they feel uninspired and write through tears, ennui, anxiety, and weariness. They persevere through the doldrums and end up with an actual piece of writing.
Stop waiting. Start writing.
End Endless Editing.
Perfectionists fear sharing their work with other people because we do not want others to judge us as less than perfect. As writers, we want readers to perceive us as competent and smart. Some writers hate the idea of being judged as less than perfect so much that they become trapped in an endless cycle of editing and revising, refusing to view their polished work as good enough to show anyone.
Unless we write only for ourselves, readers will judge our writing. Most readers are kind, but some have never learned how to give useful feedback. All the writers I know, but particularly academic writers, have experienced destructive criticism. Sometimes a reader (on your committee or a peer reviewer, say) chooses to explain to you in painful detail how much he or she thinks your work sucks. Being on the receiving end of this kind of criticism feels devastating and leads writers to doubt themselves as writers. Even worse, destructive criticism causes writers to doubt their worth as people.
Perfectionists struggle with any level of criticism, but particularly the destructive kind. We’ve got to learn to handle criticism, which often isn’t really about us at all. Mean critics manage theirtheir own pain by launching it at other people. Nevertheless, even with the understanding that mean criticism isn’t about us, receiving destructive criticism hurts. As powerless and rejected as we may feel when dealing with destructive criticism, we do have one good weapon against it: we can stop listening to those people and giving their opinions so much power over our self-worth.
Find safe people who can and will give you honest, kind, and constructive feedback on your first few drafts. Think about the number of people on the planet whose opinions you genuinely value. Your mean critic is probably not among them.
In the end, managing perfectionism is a life long process; it requires that we tackle difficult emotions. Writing through perfectionism involves a willingness to embrace the discomfort of vulnerability. We need to believe that we’re good enough. Not perfect, but good enough. We’ve got to choose to believe that no matter what happens with our writing, we are good enough as human beings. Only when we believe that we’re enough can we let go of perfectionism long enough to write something.