I am a reformed perfectionist. And it’s because of a shit pocket.
When I emailed my second YA manuscript to my former agent, I was obsessed with perfection, a personality trait I expected within myself, but not with others. I read the manuscript out loud, nitpicked over lines, rearranged sentences, and debated over adjectives. Sometimes I spent hours on a paragraph to get it just right.
After I hit Send, doubt seeped into my mind, drenching the euphoria that came with such a huge accomplishment. A year of hard work, numerous revisions, reassurance from author friends, and yet all I could think about was “What if it’s not good enough, perfect enough to sell?”
I gave into the temptation to read through the manuscript one more time. I needed to reassure myself that I had indeed created a novel I could be proud of. Within the first chapter, I found small typos. A missing comma and quotation mark. How was this possible? I’d read it a thousand times!
Taking deep breaths, I told myself these errors didn’t matter. There would be a chance to fix them. But finding a missing word here and a grammatical error there, I became more and more distressed. And then I came across SHIT POCKETS! I left out the “r.”
Tears burned the back of my throat. Once again, I wondered how I missed that. My error led to a flurry of text messages to my best friend, another author who had read an early draft. She promptly told me to forget about it. “It’s one word, Liza. It doesn’t matter,” she said. “You’ve written an amazing novel and one missing “r” is not going to matter.”
But my perfectionist self couldn’t let it go. I even sent my agent an email telling him about the mistake. “I hope this makes you laugh,” I wrote.
He never responded. Because it wasn’t a big deal. Not at all!
But I didn’t see it. Not until the shit hit the page and I wallowed in it.
Shit pocket taught me a valuable lesson about perfectionism. As mere human beings, perfection is IMPOSSIBLE to achieve. Looking back, I realize my goal for perfection not only made me miserable, but it became an obstacle to creativity and the writing process. I came to the conclusion that my best was and is good enough. Doing my best is a goal I can achieve every single day. Some days, that means writing crap. But who cares? It can be revised.
Here are a few things I learned about perfection:
- For me, it was a means of being in control. It was also a crutch, something to blame and a way of explaining why I didn’t see myself as being good enough.
- I was never truly happy with my accomplishments. I saw the flaws, instead of the incredible work I had done.
- Even though I embraced the concept of living in the moment, I was always striving to achieve more. I wasn’t enjoying the journey. Writing is a journey from blank page to published novel. But I didn’t appreciate it. The end goal was most important to me.
- My need for perfection stemmed from childhood. My mother compared me to others, especially to my sister. I could never measure up to my straight A, more athletic older sister. I didn’t see my talents or what I had to contribute. One of the nicknames my mother bestowed upon me was “Miss Malaprop.” A malaprop is someone who misuses words. It was cruel and scarring.
How did I change?
- I examined the reasons why perfection was important. Understanding how my childhood created this need, recognizing how being compared to others and how that horrible nickname influenced my perception, allowed me to let it go. Self-awareness and appreciating my qualities, flaws and all, made a huge difference.
- My best is good enough. I can’t do better than that. Ever. So, every day, I strive to be my best. It’s something I’m able to achieve. I’m a much happier person because of it.
- I no longer care about typos and grammatical errors. They can be fixed. The characters, plot, setting, overall story comes first.
- Research is an important step in my writing process. Gathering information, mining the details that make the story sparkle is critical. I’ve learned to be more patient and to appreciate this part of the journey.
- Revision is my best friend. I embrace it, relish in it. I’ve learned to celebrate cutting a paragraph, finding a better word. I celebrate improvement. Sometimes, I raise my arms and shout, “Yes! That’s awesome!”
- I allow my characters to speak, to tell their story. One of my biggest barriers with being a perfectionist was the belief that I controlled the story. Yes, of course I’m the author. But sometimes what I thought should happen, inhibited the writing process. My dear author friend Laura Harrington, an MIT professor and an award-winning playwright, helped me resolve this problem. Asking my characters open-ended questions, digging deeper and deeper and deeper, allowed them to reveal things I could never have imagined myself. For me, it’s a way of letting go of control and allowing the creative process to flow. Interviewing my characters has become one of the most crucial parts of my writing process. I get to know my characters intimately—they breathe, live, become real.
- I constantly ask why. Why am I writing this story? Why would my characters do this? Understanding the why breaks down barriers, allows me to dig deeper, revealing the secrets and underpinnings of what motivates my characters. Why allows for imperfection. It allows for growth and improvement. It also reveals what can be cut and what is necessary to the story.
Looking back to that shit pocket moment I can’t believe how much energy I spent obsessing over it. I’m deeply relieved perfection is no longer my benchmark for success. And that novel? As my previous agent said, “It came very, very, very close to selling.”
My third novel, Hello?, did. Perseverance is a key to success. Not perfection. I did it, as the imperfectly perfect Liza Wiemer.
LIZA WIEMER married the guy who literally swept her off her feet at a Spyro Gyra concert. Their love story can be found on her “About” page. Besides being a die-hard Green Bay Packers fan, she is a readaholic, a romantic, and a lover of nature, crazy socks, and rooftops.
Hello? is her debut YA novel. It was named a Goodreads YA Best Book of the Month, November 2015, and Paste Magazine called it “one of the most original YA novels of the year.” She also has had two adult non-fiction books published, as well as stories and articles in various publications. As an award-winning educator, Liza has conducted over 75 interactive seminars during the 2015/2016 school year, fueling her passion for working with young adults. A graduate of UW-Madison with a degree in Education, Liza is also the mother of two young adult sons.