Killer of dreams, hopes, momentum, objectivity, productivity, you name it.
Perfectionism doesn't get the onscreen warnings it deserves. It's dangerous and debilitating, and can sneak around seeming noble and helpful. But I found the key to beating it.
I've been a perfectionist since I was very young. But what exactly is it? Marie Forleo says it "isn't about high standards. It’s about fear. Fear of failure. Fear of looking stupid, fear of making a mistake, fear of being judged, criticised, and ridiculed. It’s a fear that one simple fact might be true: You’re just not good enough.”
(Perfectionism) is a fear that one simple fact might be true: You’re just not good enough. -Marie Forleo
I still think that having impossibly high standards for yourself is part of it, but not where it springs from. At its core, it's fear of being a failure. Not just fear OF failure, mind, but fear of BEING a big, useless, repulsive failure. Fear of who you are, but also — maybe more often — fear of who you *think* other people think you are.
And that's been the driving force for way too much of my life.
Throughout my young adult years I started and stopped dozens of ventures. My focus continually shifted because if I didn't immediately master something, I gave up.
Why? Because I was terrified of that required period of learning, where by definition you must put on display the fact that you don't yet know something, or aren't yet skilled or experienced in it.
This is a pretty messed-up perspective, but if you can relate to this at all, you're not alone.
My perfectionism worsened when I moved from the USA to the UK and started university (for the 3rd time) as a mature student, 29 amongst fresh-faced 19-year-olds, some of whom had more confidence than I will ever have. I was nearly 30 and they were still teens, which didn't help my case. I was too old to keep making mistakes and changing paths, so I was determined to PROVE TO THE WORLD that I could finish something I started. (Because the world really cares). At the end of my first semester when one of my lecturers sat me down to discuss my progress, he said, "Did you know that you are ..." and I fully expected him to say "failing," "way behind everyone else," or just, "total shite." Instead, he finished with, "at the top of your class."
This set me on a new path. I had to remain at the top, all 3 years. Not just for the accolades from lecturers whom I respected (though that became my crack) but because I loved studying, researching, attending workshops and events, soaking up everything like the freshly-wrung sponge that I was. I did stay at the top and graduated top of my class with a 1st class BA. And I'm proud of this achievement, grateful that this degree cemented my desire to be a storyteller. But when I remember some of the incidents along the way that highlighted my perfectionism — like the time I burst into tears when one lecturer, 2 years my senior, explained a concept to me that I'd never heard before and then gently reassured me that no one expected me to KNOW that already and that's why I was at university in the first place — I cringe.
Perfectionism is a bastard.
But there's perfectionism in general life stuff, and then there's perfectionism in my writing. Ho boy, pack your bags, kids, we're going on a guilt trip!
When I couldn't score a paying (note: PAYING, because a decade ago, no one in the film and TV industry wanted to pay a fresh grad) job in my area, despite internships, work placements, work experience, and a full resume (and don't forget that 1st class BA), I started focusing fully on writing. I was stuck at home all day waiting for job calls, so why not use the time?
During my degree I'd already written one completed manuscript (a contemporary women's fiction, a sort of New Adult Emily Giffin), had agent feedback and agent full requests, and learned a shedload studying the business, exchanging with critique partners, and dipping my toe into the world of writing craft.
Next I moved to my heart's desire: fantasy. I finished my first fantasy novel, a YA historical fantasy which, to this day, has been through about 20 full revisions and FWIW, I still believe in wholeheartedly. I joined several writers' groups formed on blogs and Twitter and Facebook and Google+ (remember that?), and had fallen in with a pretty great group of people. This manuscript also received several partial and full requests, so I was starting to feel like it might happen any day — this was my calling. This was where things would be EASY for me. Because that's what a calling, a destiny, a vocation was, right? When everything's easy-fucking-peasy?
Enter Crazy Editor Lady. We met through a mutual online and she came recommended so we planned to exchange manuscripts.
I sent her mine, but she never sent me hers, which was warning sign #1.
Warning signs #2-5,000 went like this. She kept making excuses about not having time to send me hers, or not being ready, and how she hadn't had time to read mine, and I assured her it was fine and had basically moved on. However, out of the blue one day she sent me an email with "feedback." She began by saying she'd been sick and in a bad mood when she'd read my manuscript, so "here's my thoughts." (Great).
She proceeded to give me no applicable feedback. What she did do was tell me the manuscript was garbage — she hated my garbage main character, my garbage ideas, my garbage writing. It was a big fat fucking mess and she hated it.
I wish I was exaggerating.
Totally toxic. Sadly, there are people like that out there, sprinkled in amongst the amazingly generous, incredibly supportive, wonderfully observant writers and readers who have keen eyes and the desire to help you improve your story while informing you of what works. Most people in the writing community who I've interacted with have absolutely been the latter, and I try my best to always deliver thoughtful, balanced, helpful feedback.
But this lady's words tore my heart in two. I'd believed that this was my calling, because it had seemed easy to this point. But the truth is, while some people pick things up quickly or seem skilled since birth, most of us must put in the hours to grow. And that's 100% fine.
But I didn't take that lesson from her. All I took, at first, was that I was a POS who could never call herself a proper writer, let alone author. She made me feel utterly vulnerable and cut open for the world to see. Thankfully, unless she sent it to all her friends to share what an utter POS she thought it and I was, the world didn't see that manuscript. All she did was make me feel like a juvenile fool who had no idea what I was doing.
Over the years since that email, I've had many agent rejections. Most have been form rejections, some personalised, some in the form of no email at all. With the exception of one agent who smartly suggested a character name change as a hot novel at the time shared that name, I've had zero applicable feedback. Zero. I've had lots of, "Not for me, but someone will love it, keep trying." I've had compliments, but not suggestions. It's a bummer.
But the other thing they all have in common? Not a single one's ever told me my writing was garbage or I should give up.
Over the years I've seen that crazy editor lady online, and I believe she even started her own freelance business. I remember once seeing her proclaim, "I don't bite," which made me snort out my coffee.
The point? It's taken me years of dedicated hard work, + craft books, articles, webinars, conferences, and workshops by professionals (aka someone who earns a living from helping others with their craft, not someone who slaps "freelance editor" on their social media) to realise and accept that your calling doesn't equal an open highway devoid of speedbumps.
Time and experience taught me 3 things:
persistence is key
if the road's easy, you're not learning and therefore not growing
being a perfectionist means being obsessed with the opinions of people like Crazy Editor Lady, so why the hell would I ever let such a trait rule me again?
What's come to matter is how I feel about the work, time, and effort I put in. And 9 years and 5 manuscripts later, I'm content with my direction. Perfectionism may wrestle me down a dark alley now and then, but I just think of the futility of basing my life on everyone else's opinion—and wrestle my way back out. Because at the end of my life, I'd rather say, "I learned and grew and progressed," rather than, "I impressed that one person I didn't even like."
The manuscript that lady trashed landed me a spot as a Pitch Wars alternative, where I met my very first proper critique partner, who remains a CP and dearest friend to this day.