Friday, March 18, 2011

Taming the Perfectionist Monster

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


Marti Pieper said...

I've read LaMott but need to reread and join your journey. I love the way you point out the bright side of perfectionism, but that's because I find comfort there. Perfectionism makes me a better self-editor. It helps me catch details I might otherwise miss. It helps me notice things others don't. It helps me make a living.

And then again--it blocks me. Until I wrote my first nonfiction book, a 1500-word article might take a month to complete. When the book gave me a tight deadline and a huge project, I learned to give myself permission to fill the page and fix it later.

Today, I give others this advice: You can't fix nothing. Double negative? No. If you don't write it, you can't fix it. As obvious as that truth seems, I have to keep relearning it. And I know I'm not alone.

The enemy's lie is that I can be perfect or create something perfect. So part of embracing the truth involves laying down those perfectionistic tendencies and celebrating the flawed, wounded, wondrous writer God's created in me.

I've been studying the craft and waiting to write fiction until I sensed--something. A break in my schedule? An irresistible idea? A push from God? Maybe. But your post has me wondering. Am I waiting until I learn enough about it to write error-free?

Because if I am, I need to let go. I need to write. I need to die.

Thanks for the pain this post brings me. I think it's, well, perfect.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

This reminds me of my new mantra: "There is no perfect."

There. Is. No. Perfect. In any area of life.

Amazing how much freedom I've experienced in that one little phrase. "Perfect" is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

I think at one point in this chapter Lamott says that "Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor." How true that is!

And Marti: go write that novel. Now. ;-)

Latayne C Scott said...

My first two completed novels took years. I compared the writing to combing out tangles from a little girl's long hair. You start on top, then (through rewriting, that perfectionist thing) you work deeper and deeper to resolve the knots in the writing.

But then I decided on a lark to do NaNoWriMo I just let myself go, wrote with abandon.

And guess what -- I can do that too! What a shock to learn that.

Lynn Dean said...

I close my eyes.

I mean, we know where they keys are, right? I can't get hung up over the words on the screen if I don't look at them. So I close my eyes and let the movie in my brain play on the back of my eyelids.

Then there was the day that my hand shifted one key to the right and I produced a page and a half of I guess my plan has some dangers and drawbacks, but at least it helps me focus on the story.

Patti Hill said...

Marti: Honey, I'm sorry and glad for the pain. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us. "You can't fix nothing." That's, well, perfect. Maybe we should started a Reformed Perfectionist of North America Club. No sky miles but tons of freedom.

Ariel: You're right about the smoke and mirrors of perfectionism. May I borrow your mantra?

Latayne: Your metaphor about untangling a little girl's hair is perfect. Writing is layer upon layer. Think of the Old Masters. So many of their paintings are painted over previous works. Hmm. I'm so proud of you for completing NaNoWriMo, especially with the beauty you created.

Lynn: I type like that too. Ha! And yes, the technique has its dangers. It doesn't hurt to peek, I suppose.

Marti Pieper said...

Wow. I'm loving the comments as much as the original post.

Unless that means I'm accountable now? That's another thing about those smoke and mirrors. They only work if you pay no attention to the (imperfect) woman behind them.

Nicole said...

Perfectionism is the curse of a God-complex. Nothing we do on this earth will ever be perfect. I agree with Ariel there.

However, I might disagree slightly with the smoke and mirrors part. The "Perfect" is the One who died for us and gave us His Holy Spirit to keep us striving to be the "best" we can be. There's the reason you so-called perfectionists labor over every word and page and no doubt makes you very good writers.

Perfectionism in human flesh is a lie. As Ariel said: does not exist. Therefore to torture ourselves with this craving is to seek to be like God--without realizing it. I also think we're afraid of failure. Afraid to be criticized by those we seek to please. I think that's why it's so paralyzing.

Heidi said...

This is something I'm still working on taming. I try to remind myself that I can fix it later, but I still put a lot of pressure on myself to be brilliant. It's an uphill battle. But I'm working on it. And three pages a day--that sounds reasonable. :)

Niki Turner said...

Perfectionism causes doubt and discontent. Doubt and discontent causes creative constipation. As I'm reading LaMott's book, her "permission to write a *poopy* first draft" has been as helpful as a dose of Milk of Magnesia, freeing me to just sit down and write without fretting over the rules and wondering if I'll ever be good enough...
Can't wait to hear your take on the school lunch chapter. Just thinking about it again makes me giggle!
Blessings, Patti!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Marti: I'm enjoying the comments as much as the post (which is wonderful, Patt, as usual).

Lynn, I was momentarily inspired by your comment, and then laughed out loud at the second part of it. But I'm going to give it a try -- working with my eyes closed so I don't get hung up on the words (though I will peek from time to time) because, boy, do I get hung up on the words. Patti, I think I could be co-chair with you of the Perfectionists of America. Hello, my name is Sharon and I. AM. A. Perfectionist. Big time. Even when I used to paint and draw years ago. I had to perfect each section as I went along. Believe me, it's a frustrating way to work. And it's still how I write. aarrggghhh. When I begin my next novel (I'm hoping to finish my current WIP by the end of the month) I will try to ease up on myself. I really will. Hello, my name is Sharon . . .

Patti Hill said...

Marti: The hope is that you will find encouragement to grow as a writer here. We hardly ever put followers in stocks anymore.

Nicole: "I also think we're afraid of failure. Afraid to be criticized by those we seek to please. I think that's why it's so paralyzing." This is very true.

Heidi: Keep chugging up that hill. It's worth it!

Nikki: Milk of Magnesia! Ha!

Sharon: Is there a 12 step program? Maybe we should...?

PatriciaW said...

Are craft posts supposed to bring me close to tears? Drop me figuratively to my knees?

Oh, Patti! You're definitely talking to me. Bird by Bird sounds like a book I definitely need to read.

I'm going to wrestle with this one in the near future, as much or more than I already have as I commit more time to writing. I like what Nicole said. Perfectionism is a lie. A lie told to us by the enemy. When I think about it like that, I want victory and I feel empowered and freed to write, not try to be perfect.

Patti Hill said...

Patricia: Thanks for the reminder. As lovers of the Truth, we don't bend for lies. It's time to pray for that spine of iron like David.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Patti, this post is brilliant. I'll join you and Sharon and all the rest in the 12-step program.

I love the suggestion that we should embrace the strengths of our personality type while being aware of its weaknesses. The great writers probably aren't the ones who've slapped words onto a page willy-nilly to meet a word count. They're the ones who've chosen each word with care.

I'm a three-page-a-day girl myself. That, however, is on a dedicated writing day (I'm talking kids at daycare, drive to the library, write like a madwoman from 9am to 4pm.) My pace is painfully slow. And yet, I did NaNoWriMo one year. It nearly killed me, even though at the time I had no other responsibilities - no work, no kids, nothing. Couldn't do it now. Because even in the frenzy of having to meet a ridiculously ginormous daily word count, I can't just slop drivel onto the page.

I've made peace with my personality. Perfectionism serves me well, as long as I keep my eyes open for the pitfalls. I read a great interview with Dean Koontz once where he confessed he only writes 500 words a day - and yet he's produced 113 novels to date. How? He's a perfectionist with words, but he produces consistently. He likened this to water dripping into a cauldron until eventually it is full. That's all it takes - one drop at a time.

Marian said...

I'm not a perfectionist, but I have been avoiding the messy stuff by simply glossing over. After reading LaMotte's chapter on perfectionism, I realize that the best writing starts with a digging up a graveyard.

Heather Marsten said...

The Amish women deliberately make a mistake in their quilts with the philosophy that only God is perfect, so therefore they have to make sure their quilts are not perfect. I used to think how humble that was until I realized the pride behind that - that they are implying that if they didn't make that tiny mistake their quilts would be perfect.

No one is perfect. Only God is perfect. Even the most perfect manuscript can be tweaked. As a new writer, there is no illusion that I have achieved perfection in a manuscript. But perfectionism did hold me back to endlessly revising the first three chapters of my book. Finally I decided leave them for later and move forward. Now I work chapter by chapter, getting it presentable, with the promise of deep cleaning the flaws later. That is helping and I am currently on chapter 14.

Thanks for this blog. I have been reading her book and it is neat to read it with others.


Patti Hill said...

Karen: I'd not heard that about Dean Koontz. 500 words is nothing. I wonder how he keeps track of his story, because losing the pace of the story can be one downfall of writing slowly. Koontz doesn't have that problem. I wonder if he uses an outline. Hmm.

Carla Gade said...

The perfectionist monster used to haunt me terribly. I still wrestle with him, but I've learned to write anyway on my current projects. What I need to do is wrestle with him more so that he will let me gain entrance to those projects that I was overwhelmed with and are locked away waiting to be rescued!

Dina Sleiman said...

I call my first drafts "word vomit," although Anne's version is quite comical. I think of the early writing not as the book itself, but as the material for the book. It's like the lump of clay that will be molded by the potter.