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.