Killing Your Inner Perfectionist
The critic who lives in your head can ruin everything you try to write—but how do you shut it up?
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The following is an excerpt from Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book by Courtney Maum, publishing January 7.
For reasons we will not get into here, I once attended clown school. We had to do an exercise where we walked around the room in circles at our normal pace. Then we did the exercise walking at “the speed of fun.” “The speed of fun,” explained the instructor, as people started bumping into one another, “is when you’re going too fast to hear your inner critic.”
I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t have an internal naysayer second-guessing all she does. The problem is so common, some psychologists advise giving your self-critic a name and an identity: mindfulness blogger Wendy de Jong refers to hers as “Perf,” and in a Psychology Today article on the same subject, an anonymous client calls hers a “hungry wolf.”
Perfectionism can be a good trait in a writer: it drives you to deliver work that is spell-checked, fact-checked, and free of glitchy formatting, while also including such essentials as nice sentences and plot. To this end, your editors will appreciate your perfectionism because it saves them time.
But perfectionism can hold you back. So many people are afraid of writing badly, when the truth is that bad writing is the only way you’re going to start writing well. “I’m unable to write that really shitty first draft,” says the writer Hallie Goodman, who admits to being stunted by her “perfectionist bullshit.” “I’m unable to suspend judgment, I line edit as I’m writing. For me, it’s a scarcity-of-time issue. I feel like nothing can be wasted. I’m afraid of wasting time.”
Hallie has been able to indulge this fear because she does lack time. In addition to writing and freelancing for magazines, she also runs a successful reading and workshop series called Volume, which keeps her in constant contact with authors and their publicists, students, and local commerce owners, troubleshooting and event managing to keep everything on track. But recently, Hallie was awarded a monthlong fellowship at the MacDowell Colony, and her excuses didn’t hold water anymore. “All of a sudden, I couldn’t tell myself I didn’t have time to write,” she says, “because time was all I had.”
One thing that comforted Hallie, and ultimately got her writing, was realizing that so many other writers had the exact same problem. She met people who had affirmations tacked up all over their studios, writers who forced themselves to write two thousand words a day without a single concern for quality—the idea was just to write.
“I had to do all these infantilizing tricks,” Hallie admits. “I put up notes like, ‘There is no bypass. You must write that shitty first draft.’ And god, I made myself a star chart,” she laughs, recounting how she walked to CVS to get herself some puffy glitter star stickers that she would put up when she allowed herself to write atrociously.
Perfectionism can negatively affect not just how you write, but what you write, as well. Author Amy Brill spent fifteen years working on her first novel about a female astronomer in 1845 Nantucket, and her perfectionist drive to incorporate all her research nearly derailed the book. “I was so sure I had to adhere to every minute fact, every turn of phrase, every one-hundred-sixty-year-old date,” Amy admits, “that I ended up with hundreds of pages of deadly boring epistolary junk. Its verisimilitude was admirable, but as a novel, not so much.”
When Amy lost an entire crop of research in a backpack she misplaced, what at first felt like a tragedy turned into a liberation. “The original questions—what would make a teenaged girl spend the entire night on her roof, in every season, searching for something in the night sky that would change her life—had been engulfed by thee and thou and other things that barely belong in a novel, much less on every page. I had to start over, and I did. The next version kept some of the facts about the inspiration for my character, but dispensed with most of them. If I wanted to tell the story of that girl on the roof, I had to make it up. That’s the book that became my first published novel, The Movement of Stars.”
If you’re into disassociation, hire your inner critic to be your copy editor. But do not let her write. And take heed if you’re paralyzed by the idea of a bad draft: a good book usually takes about seven shitty versions, not one.
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