Sarah stood in front of the door, her heart in her throat, ready to knock.
This is it. The first sentence in the climactic scene of your story. You glance at the clock. It’s 11:02am. You have exactly one hour to make some significant progress in writing the scene you’ve painstakingly outlined. You know the character’s goal, her motivation and the conflict that will propel the action forward to the resolution.
You take a deep breath, fingers hovering over the keyboard as you read your first sentence again. Is the phrase, heart in her throat, too cliché? Probably. Maybe the reader shouldn’t be distracted by descriptions right now. Keep it active. Shorter sentences build suspense.
You move your cursor to the middle of the sentence.
Sarah knocked on the front door.
You look at the clock. Take another breath. 11:14am. You’ve got this.
What if Sarah doesn’t knock on the door? Maybe she freaks out and comes back later. You abandon the keyboard and flip back through your notes, scanning the section of your outline where you described what Sarah does. She definitely knocks on that door. Sarah knocks and Cole lets her in, and they need to have this conversation right now, not later. You look back at the screen.
It’s ok. You still have fifteen minutes before you need to switch out the laundry, 35 minutes until you have to leave the house. Focus.
knocked on the front door stood at the door ready to knock, her speech playing on repeat in her head mind. Could she do it? She wasn’t sure, but she knew one thing – Cole wouldn’t be happy.
Pause. Click. Delete.
Sarah stood in front of the closed door
ready to knock, her speech playing on repeat in her mind. Cole wouldn’t be happy.
Cole wouldn’t be
Cole wouldn’t be
Cole wouldn’t let her inside.
You prop your elbows on your desk and bury your face in your hands, just as the buzzer on the washing machine cuts into the silence.
Does this sound familiar? Yes? Ok then. Read on.
What is perfectionism?
I love this definition from Psychology Today that describes perfectionism as, “a trait that makes life an endless report card on accomplishments or looks.” There’s something about likening my behavior to a report card that just seems so…accurate. A grade is tangible. Something I can give myself, a scale I can climb. Yes, I thought when I first read this. Exactly.
What really got me about this though was the second part of this definition which goes on to describe unhealthy perfectionism as being, “focused on avoiding failure, resulting in negative orientation.”
That’s failure, with an F. An F is a grade too, one that for me, conjures all kinds of negative emotions like anxiety, nervousness, fear and especially, shame.
What drives perfection?
In one of my favorite books, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, author and researcher Brené Brown describes shame as being “the birthplace of perfectionism.” It begins with the feeling that we’re not enough if we don’t measure up to some self-imposed, unattainable ideal.
Sidenote: If you’re interested in digging deeper into how shame impacts our daily lives, I highly recommend The Gifts of Imperfection and any of Brown’s other books. Before I read them, I had no idea where my feelings of inadequacy stemmed from or how to take steps to change the narrative.
In my case, my own perfectionistic tendencies rear their ugly heads when I’m creating something I truly care about. Creating something out of nothing is grounded in passion. We dig so deep for it, that we can’t entertain the possibility that the result will be anything less than what we’ve imagined it to be.
And that’s not a bad thing. Caring about something that much gives us purpose. It drives us to set lofty goals and work harder every day to achieve them. Except sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, our desire to reach what we consider to be ideal, can inhibit us from making any progress on our projects at all. We become overly critical of ourselves and let our negative self-talk dictate our feelings of self-worth.
Break the cycle
Chances are you’ve read at least one article detailing how detrimental and debilitating both social and self-oriented perfectionism can be. Striving for perfection in our creative lives is both addictive and paralyzing. Constantly chasing our perceived notion of what’s “good enough” is also exhausting. I know, because I spent hours, days, and sometimes months sitting in front of my computer while trying to write my current work in progress only to sink further into metaphorical quicksand.
Then one day I finally said…
I just started. I gave myself permission to write poorly and I just…wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote and didn’t stop. I didn’t worry about whether the scene I was writing made any sense or whether I used the right tense. I didn’t care if I rambled on about the stain on my protagonist’s dress or the rows of potato chip bags lining a shelf in a non-existent grocery store.
And, you know what?
That hour, I wrote 2,000 words. That may not seem like a lot, but to someone who was averaging 400-500 words in that same amount of time, it was like waking up on Christmas morning. I just wrote, and it was…
And all it took was some faith and a healthy dose of self-love to get me back on track and into a place of peaceful productivity.
Break the rules
I recently had a teacher friend of mine tell me that instead of advertising the old adage, “Practice makes Perfect,” in her classroom, signs now display the phrase, “Practice makes Progress.”
I loved that. There’s something about it that makes me feel empowered, like I’m truly the master of my own fate, like I can break the rules.
As it turns out, perfectionists aren’t so keen on breaking the rules so today, I’m giving you permission to be a rebel. In the spirit of pursuing artistic fulfillment, I give you free reign to create using less-than-perfect techniques, the way you want to, without giving any thought to the outcome.
This post isn’t about what your art should be or even what it will be, it’s about what you would say right now, in this moment, if you weren’t concerned with being better or enough.
Experiment. Play. Be brave.
And know that you can always change your mind. First drafts are first drafts for a reason. They come first. Even if you’re on the second, third, or final draft – keep working. Set a timer if you want to. Commit to creating for 3 hours, 1 hour, 10 minutes, without a censor. If you’re a writer (or even if you’re not), pen the kind of cringeworthy, no holds barred writing that makes you question your sanity in becoming an artist in the first place and see what happens.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Actually, I won’t. I have work to do.