Confession: I am a slow writer. Bet you didn’t know that, since I consistently post a new blog update like clockwork every Friday. (I attribute that fact to my love of deadlines. Why? Because, well, I’m just sick like that). But the truth is, I am painfully slow when it comes to writing. Especially fiction. Blogs use my “Essay Voice,” as I call it. And I’ve never seemed to have a problem making that one flow. In fact, I used to be able to write “A”-worthy papers for college in less than hour. Shhh, don’t tell my former teachers. 😉
Why is fiction is so much harder for me? Because I’m a perfectionist. Now, a lot of people call themselves that. But I take it to a new level. I think it’s hovering on the fringes clinically certifiable, partying it up with my other obsessive tendencies: Neat-Freak Syndrome, Control-Freak Syndrome, and some weird creature I can only describe as Straight-Things-Must-Be-Straight Syndrome. But while the others are definitely annoying to my family and friends, only Perfectionism really seems to annoy the crap out of me.
It’s the reason I only post once a week. Because I literally spend all week editing and revising my blog posts. According to all the non-perfectionist writers out there, you should only spend up to two hours writing each post, proofread it once, and then send it into the ether of the internet with a kiss and a wave. Yeah, that doesn’t work for me. And not because my initial attempts at putting thought on computer screen are so awful that they can never see the light of day. I’ve been told the opposite by the select few privy to seeing my rough drafts. (I, of course, think they suck, further solidifying the theory that I need help.) But I obsess over it anyway. Reading and re-reading and tweaking minute details that most people wouldn’t even notice until I finally run out of time and hit publish. Sad, isn’t it?
And it only gets worse when I work on fiction.
I will agonize over the same section of writing for weeks, months, years; adjusting things so tiny that even my writing group partners don’t always notice. And for what? To satisfy the demon of Perfectionism? To tweak and alter and muddle until I push things so far that they wander past the point of perfection and fall off the cliff into a blazing ball of destruction? (Yes, I have actually ruined pieces by over-editing. It does happen.) I think, ultimately, it’s because words are only semi-friends of mine. Bear with me, this is going to get a little convoluted.
I don’t write in words. (Obviously, technically I write in words. So stop scoffing, I can hear it from here. You’ll understand in a minute.) When I write, it’s a movie in my head, set to whatever glorious and often random piece of music spawned the idea. It’s a fully functioning music video, or full-length feature film (depending on the length of the inspiring music) complete with dialogue and sound effects. (Remember when I said I wanted a download button for my brain? This would be why.) I’m not Super Woman (although the sheer number of things I try to tackle/juggle might suggest I’m maybe a distant relative of her fourth cousin twice removed). I can’t actually write, draw, and animate complete ninety-minute movies on my own, at least not in any length of time that would appease my impatient side. So I write them instead. Meaning I have to send them not through a visual projector, where they could come to life exactly the way I imagined them, but through a translator and into written word instead. Have you ever played around with Google Translate? Yeah, it’s kinda like that.
Doesn’t sound complicated, does it? But it can be ridiculously hard to nail down something that requires visual special effects and cinematography with something as non-visual as words. It’s like trying to force something that only has meaning in another language into its English equivalent and failing miserably, losing all of the nuances and emotional context of the original in the translation. So why don’t I pursue something more visual, like animation or graphic novels? Because Perfectionism requires that I spend upward of fifty hours on any single image, and when each graphic novel has hundreds of images, animation thousands, that means I’d never get it all done. Even if I was one of those amazing artists who can draw anything. Which I’m not.
So that leaves writing. And the painfully slow process of trying to force what wants to be a movie onto the written page. Add Perfectionism to that equation and you end up with one anxiety-producing, obsessive nit-picking fiasco that results in my taking eons to write even a single scene. And because I also suffer from the need to write linearly, I often get stuck when I can’t quite get the written version of my inner movie to sync up. It’s extremely frustrating.
Which brings us to the point of this pseudo-rant. (No, it wasn’t just me feeling the need to vent my frustrations in a massive wall of text.)
I know there are plenty of other writers out there just like me. Writers who agonize over every word they wrote and are frustrated when they see accounts of people finishing 400+ page novels in six months or less, all while they’ve been struggling over the same project for years. And I’ll admit, I’m among the first to be discouraged when reading those accounts, falling prey to the bitter toxin of jealousy and envy. I don’t understand how people do it. I honestly don’t. Which irritates me. How can I possibly emulate them when their process seems like such a foreign creature from mine that they aren’t even the same species anymore? I know I’m not alone in feeling that way either.
Recently, I’ve noticed a trend during my loitering around various online forums — writers asking how not to be perfectionists. And they’re always given the same advice wrapped in shiny new variations:
“Just don’t care.” (Right, because that’s actually possible for a perfectionist personality.)
“Write anyway.” (Uh, isn’t that what I’ve been doing?)
“Know that it will be absolute crap and just keep going.” (But it’s crap! I can’t write crap!)
“You can fix it later.” (But I want to fix it now. Why is that wrong?)
Well, I say that that advice is hogwash. And, as someone I think we can all agree is close to earning the crown for Perfectionist Freak, I can tell you that for a perfectionist, that advice is simply impossible. I’ve tried it for years, and I can safely say that every draft I created under that philosophy has unfailingly found its way into a fire somewhere, being deemed so horrifically awful that it was beyond saving. No, the best strategy for perfectionist writers, myself included, is acceptance. We are who we are, and we write the way we write. The thing we have to remember is that, when those other “normal” writers create a first draft, it is absolute crap. They’ll even say that themselves. And then they have to spend months and months in serious revision, over-hauling the entire thing and polishing it into some semblance of the final product. And then they do it again.
Perfectionist writers don’t end up with first drafts. At least, not by those standards. Because we polish and smooth and revise and agonize over every detail as we go, when we finally get to the end, it’s more like a second or third draft. Which means we actually spend less time in the revision process. It probably evens out to the same amount of time invested in the end, when you compare the schedules of both methods. (I secretly think that when writers brag about finishing a novel ridiculously fast, they’re only counting the first draft. Not all the ones that come after it.)
So the next time you start getting down on yourself, my fellow perfectionists, remember that. We’re not lesser writers, we just operate differently. Don’t worry about killing your inner Super-Editor (although you’ll see that advice a lot), embrace them and roll with it. You’ll be done eventually, and you’ll end up with the story you wanted, the way you wanted it. That’s what really matters in the end. Not how long it took you to write it, or whether or not you conformed to the standard method of draft, revise, draft, revise, rinse & repeat. And yes, Perfectionism may feel like the bane of your existence (it certainly does mine), but it’s also part of what makes us good. So accept it.
My name is Kisa, and I’m a perfectionist.