February 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve always tended to be a perfectionist. After I’m done eating in a fast food restaurant, I take my wrappers and fold them into perfect squares, then pile them with rest of the trash in the center of the tray–largest items, like the flat wrappers and obnoxiously large soda cups, stacked first. Then the leftover napkins and plastic sporks inside of that. What can I say? I like things to have an order. I like it when I can get things to seem “right”.

Which, of course, is a ludicrous pursuit, in fast-food throwaways and in writing. Yes, the ability to pay attention to details in our own writing is important. Yes, first drafts don’t get any better until we notice what’s wrong and fix it. Yes, yes. But I find that if I turn on this handy little perfection switch too often, it’s paralyzing. There have been years when the switch got stuck in the ‘ON’ position for months and I found myself so skittish about the possibility of making a mistake that I just didn’t try. Or when I did try I was convinced it was terrible.

Now, I know I’m not the first writer to put forth the confession that my obsessive attitude to be a perfect is actually counterproductive. The reason I’m writing this is because I’m convinced that every other writer out there goes through this, too. But most other advice I’ve read runs a long the lines of ‘just stop being a perfectionist’. Which is good advice, for people who can take it. But I know myself, and I’m a fast-food-trash-folder for life.

So what am I (and other fellow perfectionists) to do? What I’m (slowly) learning is to try and cultivate my perfectionist streak for when it’s really needed, and let the little things go. Details are important in writing, but getting hung up on all of them usually gets me nowhere. So now, after I scan a car wreck of a first draft that makes me feel like I might as well just quit, I take a deep breath and find one–one–problem to focus my perfectionist energies on and just deal with that for awhile. And you know what? It’s working.

It’s all about balance, I guess. But I’ve got to go: there’s a pen on my desk that’s not positioned at a ninety-degree angle.


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