Welcome to our book talk on Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott. We're discussing the chapter "Perfectionism" today. Even if you haven't read the chapter, we invite you to add your voice. We learn so much from what you offer.
"I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it." Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
I. Am. Not. A. Perfectionist.
I just happen to be very, very, very conscientious.
Are you buying this?
You shouldn't. I'm a charter member of the Perfectionist Club of North America, a gold cardholder for decades. If they gave sky miles for perfectionism, I would be on my gazillionth trip around the world right now, sipping an espresso on the Rue de la Paix.
So how is it I've managed to write six first drafts and complete the novels?
It wasn't easy. It took over a year to move from the research stage of my first novel to the point where I was willing to put a few words on a blank page, which I fixed and fixed and fixed ad naseum. And then I read Bird by Bird.
I agree with Anne. It takes a belief in God to gain the "courage and stamina" to write that inglorious first draft. Like the children of Israel crossing into the Promised Land, we have to get our feet wet, or select the five polished stones from the stream to face a Goliath-like rough draft or cling to the hem of Jesus' garment and never ever let go. Paul's prayer in Ephesians hits the mark: "I ask the Father in His great glory to give you the power to be strong inwardly through His Spirit." Also, it doesn't hurt to keep compassionate company with yourself. If you're willing to smile at others when they get something all wrong, you should do the same for yourself as Geneen Roth suggests.
But chances are, if you're a perfectionist, you learned early in life that people value you for what you can do. You're comfortable with your perfectionism or you have reached an alliance that works for you. It's been a tool for success in many cases. You can't just turn your personality knob from perfectionist to reckless abandon, but perfectionism will not get you through a first draft, the draft meant to be nothing more than a framework for the beauty to come later. Yep, my throat tightens around those words, too.
Here's where I benefitted from the wisdom of two stellar writers. Early in my writing days I read something Jane Hamilton (A Map of the World) said in an interview. Here's the gist of what she said: "If I can't ride my horse every day and weed the garden and read to my children, I won't be much of a storyteller, so I only write two pages a day." Well, I decided to best her by 50% and write three pages a day. And I follow Anne's suggestion about first drafts, which allows me to write those poopy drafts, knowing I can come back the next day and tidy them up a bit before plugging ahead on the next three pages. This plan allows the perfectionist in me to loosen up a bit.
You're probably thinking, three pages a day? Yep, that's my limit. Just thinking about NaNoWriMo gives me hives. The thought of 50,000 words of dreck undoes me. Won't go there. My rough drafts are definitely pokier than most, but they happen. Like me, you'll have to negotiate with your perfectionistic tendencies to find your acceptable perameters.
Especially for the perfectionist, it's nice to hear how even the most talented and prolific among us struggle. This quote of Kurt Vonnegut's makes me want to take a dandelion-yellow crayon between my teeth: "When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth."
The very good news is that perfectionists are great at revision. Stay tuned!
Does perfectionism prevent you from pressing on while writing your first draft--or starting it? How do you tame your perfectionism? Are there ways you work at not looking at your feet as you run over the stepping stones?
I think we can pick up the pace by reading the next three chapters: "School Lunches," "Polaroids," and "Characters" for our book talk on April 1st.
Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best. ~Henry van Dyke