5.19.16 - The Positive Side of Perfection

The Positive Side of Perfection

For the past two weeks, I’ve focused on how a life-long pursuit of perfection has created issues in both my creative and personal lives.

Today, I’d like to turn all of that on its ear.  

Because, honestly? Striving for perfection has created great success for me.


The term success in and of itself is subjective. The traditional definition—the accomplishment of an aim or purpose—seems less than the word’s current connotation. Success means so many things to so many people. What is your measure? Is it wealth? Fame? Book sales, reviews, touring? Or something more intrinsic to your happiness—the accomplishment of your aims?

We all measure ourselves by different yardsticks—yardsticks we hold next to someone we’d like to be or emulate, instead of our own shadows.


Think about that for a moment.

When is the last time you looked inward and said, “Hey, I’m pretty awesome!” What did you hear instead? “So and so got a better review/better coop/sold more books/landed that spot in PW…” Or is that just me?

Because I admit it. As much as I try to stay focused, my yardstick does creep away sometimes, to mock me from afar.

I preach—PREACH—to all my writing friends that you absolutely cannot compare your path to another writer's. Everyone’s publishing journey is different. Unique unto them. So your yardstick can only be used to measure yourself. It’s mano e mano—in this case, you against you.

I believe in the individual’s path. But I also understand that without a little healthy competition, sometimes you don’t push yourself hard enough. And there’s a difference between competing and coveting. A huge one.

Competing makes you stronger. Coveting makes you weaker. 


And here’s where the relentless pursuit of perfection comes in. Every book I write, I try to improve on the last. Stronger writing, better structure, deeper characters, scarier villains. I don’t want to do the same thing twice, so I experiment. I push myself. I write things and allow them to stay on the page because I know if I trust my subconscious, it will all make sense in the end. I force words onto the page, even when I’m not feeling it.

I create. No matter what—good, bad, mediocre—I create.

And then, in competition with myself and with writers I admire, I push myself to up my game.


I edit the wee word beasties into submission. I push them around like a coach facing an unruly and recalcitrant football team. I scream at them, beg them, cajole and woo. Whatever it takes to get them perfect.

Am I a perfect writer? Hell, no. No way. Not even close. But my personal drive for perfection, to top my previous best, makes me come to the page, day after day after day, and find ways to make it all work. I might drive myself crazy in the process, but I’m all over it. I am living this path. It’s mine, and I love it.

That drive to create, to better each book, to perfect the process, find easier paths to better work, is why I feel like I’m having some success. Do I feel like I AM a success? Not yet. But I am having a decent measure of success in my career now. It’s taken a decade of showing up to the page, Sisyphus with his rock, pounding out the words, for me to feel like a real writer.

There are other people who do this so much better than me. Writers I so greatly admire, because their pursuit of perfection leads them to something I like to call intentionality.

I know several intentional writers. They are not waiting for the writing to come to them. They aren’t letting their careers unfold as they will. They enter into this business mindfully, purposefully, intentionally. They are in complete control of all aspects, from what they write to how they write it, and for whom.

The first who comes to mind is one we all know and love—J.K. Rowling. Look at how she planned out the Potter books. Look at how she took complete control of her career when those books took off. How she held back rights because she knew somewhere down the line, she was going to need them as a negotiating tool. Audio, digital, film—she was careful and deliberate every step of the way. She make the choices that were right for her and her work, and no one else.

Now, JT, you say, Rowling isn’t a good example, because she has so much money she had the power of choice.

OK. I’ll give you that. But I still assert she’s an intentional writer. Come on, she put out a book under a pseudonym to get the story out there unfettered by her success.

Still don’t buy it? All right. Let me give you a case that might strike closer to home. A young writer named Elizabeth Heiter.

I met Elizabeth at a conference last year. We shared a panel, and as always happens, the questions evolved into the typical, How did you get published? At the time, I remember being rather awestruck at how knowledgeable, how intentional, and how focused she was. She knew things as a debut that I’d only learned after several years in the business. You can always tell when a new writer is going to make a career at this. There’s something in the way they talk, the way they approach their career, their work. They’re intentional. Elizabeth is intentional. Read this piece she did about her journey. It will explain what I mean.

I posit that the pursuit of perfection drives us to succeed. While there may be pitfalls, and it’s certainly easy to fall into them, without this desire, without this impetus, there would be no success.

If we didn’t try to top ourselves, to be intentional toward our work and our lives, we’d never create another piece of art.


Last week, I mentioned the scene from the movie Burnt, where the protagonist Adam and his therapist discuss how Adam feels the apocalypse bearing down if he doesn't achieve perfection. Sometimes, the fear of the impending apocalypse does help us. The good that comes from the drive to perfect—the work product, the personal goals met, the ceilings we set for ourselves shattered—are Janus twins, aren’t they? They can crush us, or they can make us. 

If you’re lucky, you can use this desire and drive to make your career.


Next time, I’m going to dive into the tangibles of how I set goals and how I reward myself when I achieve them. Until then, I’m curious to hear whether you think the pursuit of perfection is a positive or a negative in your creative life. 

5.12.16 - On What Happens If We're Not Perfect (Perfection Series Part II)

On What Happens If We're Not Perfect

 

I struggle with perfection. I don’t think I’m the only one.
 

I’ve discussed before how my pursuit of perfection paralyzes me. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering why, exactly, I’m holding on so tightly to things. I’ve been self-psychoanalyzing this white-knuckle approach to life, and, as always happens, the universe has been giving me what I need to make sense of my thoughts and find new paths to follow. I’ve had some interesting epiphanies lately.

I’d already decided I wasn’t going to have a birthday, because I refused to get a year older.
 

What I didn’t say aloud was I didn’t want to turn another year older and still feel like I don’t have my shit together.

 

I mean really, I’m an adult. I have a job I love, a husband I adore, a fantastic life with wonderful friends, adorable kittens, and a house that (ten years of renovations later) finally seems to be in pretty good shape.
 

But the edges of my life still feel frayed and unkempt.
 


There are still so many things I want to do, so many ways I want to be more intentional. 

So I revolted at the idea of a birthday, proper. Instead, because I’ve learned to trust my subconscious, I did something utterly unique on my special day. I scheduled some me time. Time I could be alone, and do some thinking. Time to process a bunch of really cool insights I’ve had recently.

Have you seen the movie Burnt, starring Bradley Cooper as a tyrannical bad-boy chef? If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. I love stories about food, and this doesn’t disappoint. But more important is the theme of the story. It is clear, and it is hard. 
 

Perfection kills.


As the protagonist, Adam Jones says, “If it's not perfect, you throw it away…”

A double-Michelin-starred chef, Adam has a fabulous redemptive journey through the story. He is a perfectionist. He holds himself, and everyone around him, to such completely unattainable heights he is constantly disappointed.

There is a moment, late in the movie, when he’s talking with the therapist tasked with keeping him drug-free and in line so he can get his third Michelin star, that is so powerful I had to stop the movie, sit for a few minutes, and try to process what he’d said. He’s being completely sarcastic in tone, but he means every word. This is the heart of his character, his driving force. 
 

Dr. Rosshilde: Tell me what frightens you.

Adam: Spiders. Death.

Dr. Rosshilde: [chuckles] Well, or maybe the imperfection of human relationships, the imperfection of others, of yourself.

Adam: [sighs]

Dr. Rosshilde: What happens if you get this third star?

Adam: Oh no, not “if.” “When.” 

Dr. Rosshilde: Alright, when you get it.

Adam: Celebration. Fireworks. Sainthood. Immortality.

Dr. Rosshilde: Perfection.

Adam: Mmhmm, sure.

Dr. Rosshilde: What happens if you fail?

Adam: Plague. Pestilence. The seas rise, locusts devour. The four horsemen ride, and darkness descends. 

Dr. Rosshilde: Death.

Adam: Sure.
 

I don’t know if this is how everyone feels, but it’s certainly right in line with my feelings on the subject.
 

There’s perfection, or there is the yawning abyss. There is nothing in between.

 

That’s a pretty rough place to live.
 

When I heard it, out loud, and realized this is where I’ve been dangling myself, I knew I needed to make some changes. 

So I decided to listen to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic podcast. I love Liz’s voice: She has a certain timbre in her tone that resonates with me—it’s sheer joy. She always sounds like she’s on the verge of bursting out into happy, crazy laughter, which in turn makes me happy and primes me to listen.  

I pulled a ton of nuggets from the shows, but the biggest, most mind-blowing one came from the very last installment, during a conversation she’s had with Brené Brown. 
 

Liz said a therapist once told her that what she was terrified of—essentially the worst thing that could ever happen to your art—has already happened.

 

I had to pull the car over. 

I played it back. I felt the same frisson. 

It started me thinking. What’s the very worst thing that can happen to me as an artist?
 

Someone hates my work. My book gets terrible reviews. My book doesn’t sell. I lose my editor. I lose my gig. My story inspires someone to hurt someone else. My creative muse deserts me and I can’t write.


Yeah. Well. You can see how the negativity that lurks disguises itself as a driving need for perfection. If the art is perfect, none of these things will happen. Right?

Right?

Well guess what. Liz is right. All of these horrible things already have happened. Over the past decade, every one of them (except someone hurting someone else, that I know of). 


NO ONE KNOWS is a great example of this.

 

When I wrote the book, I KNEW there were people who weren’t going to like it. I knew some wouldn’t care for the writing, the change in genre, the story, or (especially) the ending. Whether they missed the twist, or they didn’t buy into the concept, or they simply hated discovering the narrator is truly unreliable, I KNEW I was going to get dinged. It was truly the first thing I’d ever created that I understood and accepted would piss people off. 

I put it out there anyway.

I got a bunch of great trade reviews (PHEW!) and then the the rest started to come in. The good far outweigh the bad, but there are some BAD reviews. (I particularly enjoyed the one who suggested a lobotomy would be necessary to enjoy the book.)

So when I heard Liz say the worst thing that could happen already has… I realized a number of things, including the realization that yes, the worst already has happened to me, in various ways.
 

If I was brave enough to let NO ONE KNOWS out into the world, knowing full well it was going to garner mixed reviews, what in the HELL am I holding back on anymore?

 

I have been using the goal of perfection to limit myself. Nay, to punish myself. All the while not even realizing that the worst has already happened, and I’ve lived through it virtually unscathed.  

Yes, there’s been a lot of negative self-talk in my brain lately. It’s not because NO ONE KNOWS got some bad reviews—surprisingly, that’s not a big deal to me. People are entitled to their opinions, and not everybody likes everything. It’s something deeper. 

The nasty four letter world we all hate.
 

Fear.

 

Resistance is fear. Trying to attain perfection is fear. 

So yes, the worst thing that could happen to my art already has—there are people who don’t like it and won’t ever buy another book. 

And… the sun is still rising in the mornings. I am still creating. And by God, I am going to trust my gut from here on out, and stop letting this relentless pursuit of perfection get in my way.

Next blog, I’m going to look at some ways I’m reframing all this talk into something productive. Because I’m tired of trying to be perfect. I need to trust myself, trust my art, and trust the process. If I write the words, I will create a book. All the rest is out of my control.
 

What do you think is the worst thing that can happen to your art?

 

5.5.16 - On The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection

On the Relentless Pursuit of Perfection


From the time I was able to hold a pencil and write, perfection was my friend, and mistake my enemy.  

It was a paralyzing combination.  

I wanted to be an artist, but when faced with a blank sheet of paper, I was terrified. Not with fear that I couldn’t draw, couldn’t create. I knew I could. No, my fear was I would ruin the pristine paper with a line out of place, and I’d have to throw it away.

I would have ruined the paper with a mistake.
 

When I realized writing was a simpler thing for me than drawing, I had the same issue. If I misspelled a word, or miswrote a word, that was it. The paper was ruined, and I had to start over.

Nothing but perfection was (*ahem* is) acceptable. 

This holds true for most everything I do, all these years later.  Now I understand that this urge for perfection is a manifestation of OCD, and I find ways to push past the early paralyzing moments when faced with blank pages. For new novels, I have a formula for starting. This includes building a book journal, building a file, naming the book, putting together epigraphs… little things that mean the pages aren’t entirely blank.

But that’s easy to do when you’re in a computer screen. When you’re doing it by hand, it’s a whole different story.

All these years later, I’m still always terrified that I’m going to make a mistake on that first page and have to rip it out and start over. Trust me, there are a number of notebooks in my house with a first page missing.

I’ve been examining these urges lately, because I came across something interesting. It’s a story about how dependent we’ve become on the Cloud, and how we’re losing a lot of our history because everything is typed on computers.

Thinking about this, I had a realization. This is directly related to how we’re so carefully curating our lives for one another. If you think about it, we are always striving for perfection in our written work, so much so that we’ve become dependent on spellcheck and grammar checks, and nothing that makes it to public consumption hasn’t been edited to death.

What are we losing by working electronically? What bits of genius, or specialness, are we losing when we can so easily delete and write something fresh? 
 

Not only are we curating our lives for one another, we’re curating our thoughts… for ourselves.

Whether your desire to have a clean, perfect document is pathological or simply a result of the way you want to present yourself to the world, we are eliminating some of our finest work when we edit ourselves online, on the computer screen, in our writing programs.

Think of what we’re losing? That original thought, that original impetus, the original words, edited into coherent [[thoughts]]… *

*I JUST did it. I saw the words “thoughts”, and even though it’s correct, I immediately backward deleted to come up with something else, something unique that isn’t a repetitive word. It’s instinct; I do it without thinking. Which makes me wonder: How much do I delete throughout a day? I don’t keep track of how many words I type in a day, I keep track of the end product. At the end of the day, I have X number of words.

What if I didn’t delete and rewrite? What if I was forced to write by hand, in a notebook, and had a record of all those words I decided weren’t right, weren’t correct, were misspelled?

I’ve always wanted to write a book by hand. I do a lot of handwritten work already, from journals to note taking to planning and processing ideas. Could I stand to write a whole story by hand? Could I stand the XXed out words, the arrows drawn to realign paragraphs, the hundreds of mistakes I make in a day of writing? Moreover, how many words am I REALLY writing in a day? I’d bet I write two to three times as much as is recorded at the end of the day, trying out sentences, trying ideas, words, themes. I immediately delete when something isn’t working.

What if I stopped doing that?
 

We’re talking a monstrous sea change for me. For us all. Paper isn’t the precious commodity it used to be. Ink and pens are easy to work with. I don’t know that I could give up my laptop—the ideas seem to go through my brain directly into my fingers onto the page, without stops or bypasses, and I don’t feel that flow when I’m writing by hand.

But it’s doable. It’s totally doable.

And I would have a record—a real record, a true record—of the words. It wouldn’t be perfect, and all that markup would probably give me hives, but it’s something worth thinking about. At the very least, I’m going to try and be more intentional about how I self-edit.

In the next few weeks, look for a few more posts with the theme of perfection stifling our art. It’s something I really want to explore.
 

So….

What say you? Are we losing our culture to autocorrect and spell check and the keyboard?  Do you write by hand or by keyboard?