Perfectionists do things well. If you’re a perfectionist as a writer, you probably check and double-check every fact, deliberate over every word choice, and structure your sentences with impeccable grammatical correctness. These things are good.
Unfortunately, perfectionism has its downside as well.
Perfectionism can be crippling.
Have you ever faced a blank white page, the computer cursor blinking at you from the upper left corner, and felt completely immobilized?
Nothing I write will be good enough.
How do I even start?
All I need is the perfect first line, then the rest of the story will flow from there.
But the perfect first line fails to materialize. You make a few attempts, only to backspace in frustration when the words don’t conjure exactly what you had in mind.
Your fingers drum the desk in time with the blink of the cursor.
Deep breath. It’s all good. You know how to deal with this. They taught you how at the last writing conference. So you grab your writing muse by its scrawny neck and try again.
This time you go gung-ho. A whole paragraph flows out. Then another. This is great. You’re gonna be the next Steinbeck. The next Hemingway. The next Lisa Samson or Francine Rivers. Your words will go forth to the masses and bring transformation to peoples’ lives.
Then you read back over what you’ve written.
It’s terrible. Completely, irredeemably bad.
You select the whole pile of drivel and hit delete. It’s obviously time for a coffee break. Some chocolate might help, too. You slink from the room, casting a guilty look over your shoulder at the still-blank screen, the cursor blinking a challenge you don’t think you can meet.
Can anyone relate?
The internal pressure to be perfect can make it extraordinarily difficult to begin a task or follow it through to completion. The bar you set for yourself is so high you get a nosebleed just looking at it. You compare every word you write to the authors you most admire, noting every flaw and fault and shortfall in your work.
And while sometimes this commitment to excellence can be a very good thing, other times you just need to unzip all those restrictive expectations and let yourself breathe a little.
Have some fun again with this whole writing thing.
Let yourself play.
You see, story-telling is a creative art. The side of the brain responsible for imagination, spontaneity and fun is the right side, and this is the mode of thinking we need to tap into if we desire fertile words to spring up on our page. For us perfectionists, however, the left side of the brain can be a constant tight-lipped, toe-tapping presence.
You spelled that word wrong.
That’s a dangling participle right there.
Your voice is as dull as dishwater. You really think anyone will read this dreck?
Trying to write with the critical, editorial side of the brain engaged is like trying to drive with the handbrake on. One technique I learned years ago that helps me unlock the free, fun-lovin’, loosey-goosey creativity on the right side of my brain – without all the criticisms and comparisons from the uptight left – is the technique of free writing.
You may have heard this referred to as “automatic writing” or “stream of consciousness.” The idea is to sit down at the computer – or with a good old-fashioned pen and paper – and simply write EVERYTHING that comes into your head, without censorship or editing.
No punctuation. No purpose.
Write as fast as you can. Write impetuously. Write without thinking about what you’re writing. Write until you feel like your hand might drop off.
One thought will flow into the next, and the next. Much like rivulets of running water, merging and diverging, the brain forms a constant stream of associations. Your job for this exercise is not to judge or qualify or harness these, but simply to record every whimsical direction your mind chooses to wander.
This can be a great tool for unlocking writer’s block. It’s also useful as a daily warm-up, say for five minutes before starting work on your MS.
Free writing teaches you to write instinctively and reminds you of what it’s like to play with words for the sheer pleasure of it – the way you used to once, perhaps as a child, when you simply wrote for fun, with no expectations.
When you’ve finished, you may choose to read back over what you’ve written. It will undoubtedly make no sense whatsoever. That’s okay. The end product is not the point.
The point is how it makes you feel. When I take the time to do this, I feel limbered up, fluid, reckless, ready to dive in and splash words around on the page with abandon.
And my perfectionism is stunned into silence… for a while, anyway.
Your turn. Perfectionists, raise your hands. Do you ever find your perfectionism stifling? Do you have any tips that have helped you to loosen up and have fun with your writing?
Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Karen Schravemade lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after two small boys or gazing at her brand-new baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website, on Twitter or getting creative over at her mummy blog.