Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott has a section on perfectionism, which was not surprising to me. I’ve seen it mentioned in some of the other writing books I’ve used, most prominently from the writing guide Spilling Ink, which I loved as a child. In it, one of the authors tells a story about reading another person’s work and finding it wonderful, only to discover that that one page was the only one in existence, because the writer hadn’t been able to write something that reached their standards and had given up on it. Child me just sort of breezed past this, despite it connecting directly to the title, but I must have known subconsciously that it mattered a lot to me because it’s one of the few details from the book that I remember.
I don’t really call myself a perfectionist much, but I’m fairly sure I am one. (I can’t say for sure because I worry that I’m not perfectionist enough to be a perfectionist, whatever that means. Really, this is more proof that I am a perfectionist) In fact, there’s a voice in my head as I write this article telling me that it’s worthless unless it’s perfect. As a writer, I’ve completed more than just a blank page, but I do not finish any book I am attempting to write. I work until I decide that what I’m writing is not good enough, and then I make a new version of it that I hope will be better.
Obviously, I have no idea how to solve this problem, or else I would no longer consider myself a perfectionist, but I figured writing about it might, at the least, make me feel better, and at the most help someone out. People have probably written on this topic thousands of times, but since I am the type who has to see something thousands of times in order for it to sink in, I figured writing it again couldn’t hurt.
To prepare, I have read two articles on perfectionism (because that definitely makes me an expert now) and both tell a similar story. An article on Vox written by Christie Aschwanden quotes Paul Hewitt, one of the authors of Perfectionism: A Relational Approach to Conceptualization, Assessment, and Treatment, to define it as “a broad personality style characterized by a hypercritical relationship with one’s self” (Aschwanden). A BBC article by Amanda Ruggeri doesn’t offer a specific definition, but states that “perfectionism…is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world…built on an excruciating irony: making, and admitting, mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human” (Ruggeri). Both definitions are insightful, but I’ll focus on Aschwanden’s first. When I think of perfectionism, I usually think of it in relation to my work. I tell myself I’m being a perfectionist when I’m worrying about papers for school or checking that the answers to a math test are right for the eighth time. However, Aschwanden frames it as being critical of yourself, rather than your work, which, at least for me, gives a considerably clearer picture of what’s happening. What seems obvious wasn’t for me, and knowing that my obsessiveness when it comes to work is based on problems I have with myself, and not with my work allows me to better examine it.
Both Aschwanden and Ruggeri mention conditional and unconditional love, that people with perfectionism worry about people accepting them if they are not perfect. While this isn’t going to be the most significant detail for some (I recommend reading the articles or others and seeing what stands out), it suggests that some perfectionism isn’t really working hard for one’s own sake, but for the sake of others in order to inspire their love and admiration. When I think about my audience while writing, I change how I work, becoming more critical of my own ideas, backing off from what’s important for me because I worry it won’t be important for others. I don’t know what to do with this connection, but it’s a place to start.
To return to writing more specifically, as well as Ruggeri’s definition, we have to return to Bird by Bird. Lamott claims that perfectionism is one of the largest roadblocks to writing and that making messes are part of the writing experience. She talks a lot about first drafts and how they should be messy explorations of the story’s world and characters and figuring what direction you want to go. I cannot deny that perfectionism is a problem because I, a perfectionist, have never managed to finish a first draft, much less publish a book. (Yes, I know, why am I offering writing advice if I can’t write myself? I suppose so I can point out the holes in my strategy and hope others can avoid them). Lamott offers two suggestions, one of which is religious, and which I won’t touch because I don’t think I can do it justice (Sorry religious people). The second is that you should be nice to yourself, because you wouldn’t tell your friends they were worthless if they failed (or believe that in general), would you? It’s understandable if this advice isn’t helpful. I’ve heard it countless times, and just shrug and continue with my perfectionist way. It’s great advice, but not something that has ever worked for me personally. I mention it in the hopes that it works for you.
What catches my attention more is the idea that perfectionism will block my writing. This, and Ruggeri’s definition, contain some amount of hope. Ruggeri writes about mistakes being necessary for learning, something that I’ve forgotten. How am I supposed to get better at writing if I’m afraid to try new techniques, new ideas? Ruggeri portrays mistakes as being useful rather than something to be avoided at all costs. Trying to allow myself to make mistakes after spending so long avoiding them is terrifying to me but knowing there might be something valuable. Writing is something I love, so whenever I’m blocked (which is often), I feel really disappointed. Being able to write again comes across as motivation for me to try to let myself make mistakes, to try to be easier on myself, because I have a goal in mind. It makes me feel inspired to try learning, little by little, to go easy on my writing. And you should go easy on yours, as well.