Perfect is the Enemy of Good

Like a lot of writers, I wrestle with bouts of depression and anxiety. And by “wrestle,” I mean: when they come for me fully-loaded with self-doubt and frustration and exhaustion, I have to strong-arm the feelings back to get any work done and get on with life. I say that casually, I guess, but some days are easier than others and it’s taken me years to suss out one of the biggest culprits for turning me into an anxiety-ridden puddle of Alex goo. My enemy is perfectionism.

If we’re going to really dig into the Alex Archives, I first noticed this shadow trailing me in sixth grade. There were three prongs to this: the first was that I realized that there were kids in advanced classes, and I wasn’t one of them (And of course the question became What’s wrong with me that I’m not one of them?), I got ruthlessly bullied every single day riding home on the bus by an 8th grade girl who literally threw things at me and called me all sorts of really vile things, and I lost all of my “friends” I went into school with because—I kid you not—my parents wouldn’t let me get contacts, I was shy, and I didn’t dress the way they did. (This is especially sucky when you consider my parents didn’t want me to get contacts because I was 13 and had to get hard contact lenses which, let me tell you, are especially painful to wear in a dry desert climate and you have to actually train your eyes to wear.) And, yup, those former friends went on to become the popular girls. Classic.

I’m shading in this backstory as a way of telling you that for years—years—after, I could never shake the feeling that something was “wrong” with me, and I lived in fear of feeling embarrassed and judged like that again. To this day, it still takes me time to warm up to new people and social situations and shake off the “shame” of “embarrassing” myself by messing up somehow, or presenting myself as less than the Perfect Alex I’ve crafted in my head. It wasn’t ever that I couldn’t laugh at myself—just that I lived in terror of the moments people would laugh at me.

When my old nemesis comes around for a visit now, it’s usually in relation to my writing. I don’t cling to my stories and work and rework and rework and rework in a never-ending cycle of editing. I don’t have to turn in a perfectly clean draft to my editor to feel good about it. And while I do set hard goals for myself and work toward them, they’re not unrealistic.

My writing perfectionism manifests in procrastination.

It sounds sort of counterintuitive, right? The stereotype of a perfectionist is someone agonizing over a piece of work or a project and being trapped by a feeling that it’s just not quite good enough yet, let me work on it a little more… The stereotype implies that the perfectionist can launch themselves into a project without any sort of difficulty, when, in truth, it often leads to a kind of paralysis that makes it next to impossible to sit down and just begin. For me, it’s a beast that changes its face but never fully disappears.

In college and high school, I would work on papers and bang them out in one sitting and, true story, I would almost never proofread them beyond the proofreading I did while writing—I know. But I was so afraid of finding out that it sucked or was terrible that I couldn’t even bring myself to face it, let alone potentially fix it… which, uh, yeah, ran the risk of setting myself up for failure in a strange self-fulfilling prophecy.

Today, it’s tied into a fear of not wanting to disappoint readers and/or my publisher (the people who have put their faith in me), or that the book won’t ever live up to the vision of it I have in my head. I can tell myself a thousand times you can’t fix a blank page, and somehow, the anxiety only compounds, especially when I have a deadline looming and I’m not feeling exceptionally inspired. It doesn’t happen with every project, but, man, when it does I just feel crippled and useless. If you experience this, or this is sounding all-too-familiar, know that you are not alone and you can get through the gate.

In order to get through one of these episodes, I need to 1) trick my brain into thinking that what I’m working on isn’t actually that big of a deal by writing the scenes out by hand in a notebook instead of on the computer (which somehow feels more “final” and “official,” I suppose) and 2) divide the work up into smaller goals so I’m accomplishing even just a little bit each day. I usually write in the notebook right before bed, so the next day, or whenever I’m ready to transfer it to an actual Word document, I’ve already started and am on my way.

It’s not a perfect system, but, then again, I’m not perfect either.

perfectionism

  

27 Responses to Perfect is the Enemy of Good

  1. Chris Owens Sep 26 2014 at 9:24 am #

    This hits the nail on the head. While I’m not a perfectionist in general, I feel like my manuscript needs to be perfect before querying. I’ve gone through the cycle you’ve described, also ending up in procrastination at times. It’s good to know others go through this too, though unsettling to find that it continues even after successful publishing. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Alex
      Alex Sep 28 2014 at 12:18 pm #

      Thank you! Yeah, unfortunately, I’ve noticed that it gets even a little bit worse after successfully publishing–I think it has to do with the fact that there’s added expectations.

  2. Julie
    Julie Sep 26 2014 at 10:18 am #

    Alex, your honesty is so inspiring to me. This is such a fantastic post! Thank you for opening up about your experiences, both in writing and in “life.” It makes me (and I’m sure many others) feel like we are in very good company! <3

    • Alex
      Alex Sep 28 2014 at 12:19 pm #

      Thanks, Julie! It was a tough post to write <3

  3. Susan Sep 26 2014 at 10:24 am #

    This post is amazing. Amazing. Exactly what I needed today. You have no idea how grateful I am for you honesty and backstory…like, you’re one of my writing heroes, so to learn you go through what I go through. Yeah, I needed that today.

    <3

    • Alex
      Alex Sep 28 2014 at 12:19 pm #

      What a coincidence because you are one of MY writing heroes. Thank you, dude <3 <3 This post was directly inspired by our Books of Wonder conversation!

  4. Miriam Thompson Sep 26 2014 at 10:30 am #

    This. Right here. Can I say how this is so inspiring and the kick in the pants I needed to read today. I am the same way! Thank you for sharing this honest piece!

    • Alex
      Alex Sep 28 2014 at 12:20 pm #

      Thank you! I hope it helps to know that you aren’t alone in this! xx

  5. Alex Ray Sep 26 2014 at 10:55 am #

    I feel like you just blogged my life. No joke. Awesome post – I’ve been needing to hear it!

    • Alex
      Alex Sep 28 2014 at 12:22 pm #

      Thank you! I’m glad it was helpful!!

  6. Peggy Eddleman Sep 26 2014 at 11:39 am #

    Me = defeated perfectionist, too. This post was so honest and real and fabulous. Thank you!

    • Alex
      Alex Sep 28 2014 at 12:23 pm #

      Thanks, Peggy! It helps me so much to hear that others go through this cycle as well–a nice reminder, I guess, that everyone is perfectly imperfect!

  7. Elissa Sep 26 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    It’s funny that I never really made the connection between my perfectionism and procrastination until now. Thank you for pointing that out.

    I’m an artist as well as an aspiring author, and blank canvas is as familiar to me as a blank computer screen. Oftentimes deadlines are the only things that get me working, and I, too, have no problem whipping something out and handing it in (at the last possible moment sometimes). My technique also involves convincing myself “it’s no big deal.”

    Revision is often my savior when I can’t bring myself to lift a brush or tap the keyboard. I remind myself that whatever I do now doesn’t have to be perfect. I can always “fix” it later. (No, I don’t work in watercolor.)

    Thank you for this excellent reminder that I’m not nearly as weird as I might think I am.

    • Alex
      Alex Sep 28 2014 at 12:26 pm #

      Yes, exactly! Sometimes it’s hard to remind myself that first drafts don’t have to be perfect, that revision is absolutely KEY. It’s when I finally get that through my head that I can work.

  8. Nicholas Biello Sep 26 2014 at 7:45 pm #

    Very insightful article, Alex! As many of the other comments here suggest, you have made explicit an obstacle that so many writers face. Like you, I have been struggling with paralyzing perfectionism for a very long time, and as ironic as you say it is, perfectionism prevents one from writing rather than encourages.

    I reflected on your post and contributed to the conversation about perfectionism and procrastination on my blog, nicholasbielloinc.com. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Alex
      Alex Sep 28 2014 at 12:27 pm #

      It is a really vicious cycle, isn’t it? One of the most important things to do as a writer is write a little bit each day, but it can be so hard to get over that mental hurdle.

  9. Neal Martin Sep 26 2014 at 9:17 pm #

    I recently suffered a bout of something that was probably related to perfectionism somewhere along the line. It resulted in me burning out and wanting to throw the towel in. Somehow I got through it, thankfully.

    When I read the title of your post I actually thought it read “Perfect Is The Enemy Of God”, which is interesting because it feels like a more apt title to me. When you try to write authentically what you are actually trying to do is write for something bigger than yourself or to please an audience. To write authentically is to write for a higher ideal, to tap into something that is pure but definitely not “perfect”. It just is what it is. Good hopefully!

    Hope that makes sense lol

    • Elissa Sep 27 2014 at 12:47 pm #

      I rather like your misread, “Perfect Is The Enemy Of God.” It stimulates my thoughts in interesting ways.

    • Alex
      Alex Sep 28 2014 at 12:29 pm #

      Sometimes it just takes time and patience with yourself to get through one of these spells. One of the things that helps boost my confidence is really taking advantage of the moments that I feel “on” with creativity and getting as much done then as possible.

  10. Anita Sep 27 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Isn’t there a saying? We are our worst critic? I go through these bouts of creativity-killing depression or apathy. I’m not sure what to call it. And I, like you, turn to the notebook to just hand write it out. But when I’m in one of those funks, I sometimes can’t even make myself grab the pen, let alone the notebook. But you’re post inspires me to make myself grab those things. Because, in the end, I love to write, and I can’t let my depression or doubts take that from me. Thank you for your honesty and this post!

    • Alex
      Alex Sep 28 2014 at 12:35 pm #

      Thanks, Anita. I’ve also known that sometimes it helps to work on something else creative–a poem or even just brainstorming a new story. If you absolutely can’t face the work for a day or two, it at least keeps your brain busy and buzzing along creatively. I’ve found it’s always harder to start writing again after you’ve stopped for days/weeks/months so I try to do a little bit of writing every day.

  11. Catherine de Mornay Sep 29 2014 at 4:49 am #

    I could have written this – except that I’ve tried and mine wasn’t this eloquent 🙂

    I am a master procrastinator too, simply because I’m afraid to try in case it’s not perfect. I ended up dropping out of university because I wouldn’t do the work in case I failed. In my subconscious, if you had another reason for why you failed such as – well, I failed because I didn’t do the work – then that means it WASN’T that you simply weren’t good enough.

    It’s a particularly difficult mindset to get over as well, because for every day where you manage to shut your subconscious up enough to get some writing done, you can expect four or five where you wonder why you bother, because no-one is ever going to want to read it.

    Anyhow, I don’t have any particularly mindblowing insight into the topic, I just wanted to say, you are definitely not alone. And it’s really nice to learn that I’m not alone either. *hugs*

  12. Kara Sep 30 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    I’m so glad I came across your post. My jaw literally dropped when I read this because it sounds so much like me. I even came up with the same fix, by writing everything out by hand before facing the computer when things get really bad.

    One thing I learned recently is that I was letting my fear take over to the point that I no longer had faith in myself and my abilities. When I realized that I was actually choosing this fear, then I knew instantly that I could choose to have faith instead. I’m not great at it yet, but I’ve noticed a huge difference in my self-esteem while I’m at the computer and in-turn, I can feel that confidence leaking into my writing and I’ve been able to experience more creativity as well. I believe that perfectionism propels my fear and vice versa. Once I understood I could replace fear with something positive or take it out of the equation entirely, my perfectionism decreased by default.

    Wow! Thanks so much for your story. People are so rarely honest and open and it’s very refreshing when I find it.

  13. Regency Oct 4 2014 at 2:43 pm #

    This post is me in a nutshell. I have the worst time starting because my story ideas start in progress and I always fear that the story will go wrong if I start wrong. It’s mortifying. I’ve used the same workarounds as you; my writing notebook has often saved the day and finally started that oh so intimidating blank page off.

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