Week 2 of my participation in the REUTS Publications Camp Nano Team Competition (Whew! That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?) is drawing to a close and I’ve fallen further and further behind in word count thanks to the Procrastination Monster’s evil twin, the Time Thief. Just like the Dryer Gnomes, who sneak in when you aren’t looking to raid your socks, the Time Thief steals away minutes from your day. I’m sure you’ve had days where you start off well-intentioned, then life steps in and next thing you know, you look up to see it’s dinner time, and you could have sworn all you did was blink. Yep, that’s the Time Thief’s fault. Sometimes, if you listen hard enough, you can hear him laughing as he runs away with armloads of your missing minutes, grinning from ear to ear like the maniacal little bugger he is.
But that’s not actually what today’s post is about. No, I pledged to write each week about what I’d learned from my time spent at Camp Nano. What did I learn from week 2? That perfection is a plague.
Hey, don’t roll your eyes at me, Mister! I’m well aware that perfectionism is a common topic here on Nightwolf’s Corner, and you probably think I’m beating a dead horse. But hear me out; this time it’s got a different ending. I promise. 😉
The Perfection Plague is an illness that attacks your muse from the inside, slowly squeezing the life out of her like a giant boa constrictor. It’s highly contagious, spreading from writer to writer, and is eventually fatal– for the muse, not the writer. Symptoms include a tendency for alcoholic binging, a refusal to work when called upon, and abandoning you to the wolves of inner editors until you’re so frozen by the fear of writing something less than perfect that you write nothing at all.
If you’ve been paying attention to my posts over the past months, then it should be apparent that my own muse is bordering on being DOA. I’m surprised she hasn’t keeled over as it is. Maybe she’s slipping some kind of exotic cure made from rabid plot bunny fur into those fruity beach drinks she enjoys so much. I certainly haven’t been doing much to help her out, creating such high expectations for my overly-complicated, tangled narrative webs that some days, I can’t even bring myself to open the file for fear I’d just mess it up. Or, if I do manage to write, I agonize over it, revising and editing and sometimes just straight up deleting and starting over. Yeah, I’ve got the Perfection Plague bad. In fact, I’m probably Patient Zero.
But fear not, my fellow perfectionists, the Perfection Plague can be cured. (At least, I think. It’s kind of early to tell.) That’s where exercises like Camp Nano come in.
The whole point of Nano, if you recall, is to simply write. To throw all caution to the literary wind and get lost in the wild abandon of creative freedom like a naked hippie dancing in the rain at a music festival. Or, to be less poetic, to word vomit all over the screen until you hit that hideous goal of 50,000 words in 30 days. And, in case it’s not painfully obvious, that leaves very little room for perfection. In fact, it forces you to break the chains of expectation and just say @#%& it, following your muse down whatever weird and twisted rabbit hole she manages to find. It’s not pretty, and for a perfectionist, it can feel a lot like an exorcism.
But as painful as the process is, you learn something valuable– how to be prolific. Yes, nothing you write will be anywhere near your usual standards. Yes, you’ll feel like you’ve suddenly been struck with Schizophrenia as those inner editor wolves howl louder and louder. And yes, this novel will make your first attempts in grade school look like Pulitzer worthy masterpieces. But you know what? None of that matters. Because you’re writing. Constantly. And that lesson alone is worth the misery, the ulcers, the prescription for anti-anxiety meds you were forced to get when you ended up in the ER with a panic attack.
Seriously, it is.
I don’t know about you, but I had reached the final stages of the disease. I’d become so paralyzed with requirements for myself that my writing had come to a screeching halt. If I was lucky, I might eek out 300 words once a month. Maybe. On a good day. And part of that was due to the fact that I’d somehow gotten it into my head that I needed dedicated time to write. (Hmmmm, now where could I have gotten that idea from, blogosphere?) That I had to have the perfect storm of conditions– silence, hours of availability, limited distractions (I’m looking at you DVR), and inspiration. And if I didn’t have any of that, I didn’t write. The Perfection Plague had progressed from simply attacking the words I wrote to infecting the process itself, spreading like a cancer to overtake everything even remotely writing related. Even my plot bunnies were starting to suffer, dying with weak gasps shortly after birth because they weren’t strong enough to make it past the Gauntlet of Genericness. (Yep, totally made that word up.) A few were even eaten by the others in a fit of cannibalistic rage, combining their concepts into horrifying franken-bunnies I’m honestly kind of scared to write.
Then along comes Nano with a lovely little break from the complexities of Derek or swapping tenses in Kindred, or anything else I’d become mired in, and suddenly I was free. Like an asthma patient’s rescue inhaler, Nano cleared up my constricted creative passageways and I can write again. Freely. But more importantly, I now want to. I actually look forward to those moments, however brief, I can steal some time to work on my manuscript; something I haven’t felt in years. I’m not saying that I’d stopped enjoying writing. Just that it had lost some of that sparkle of innocence you have as a teenager first starting out. When the pressure of creating a product worthy of charging money for didn’t exist and you hadn’t contracted the Perfection Plague yet. When you wrote simply because you loved it. That’s a nice feeling to remember.
I’ve written more in the last two weeks than I have in the last year, working whenever I can, even if all I have is ten minutes while I wait for my cup-of-noodles to cook. (What? I never claimed to be a culinary genius.) Is it brilliant? Definitely not. I’m embarrassed by the very thought of letting anyone read it. Does it terrify my editor side with the massive amounts of revision it will require? Most definitely. But that’s OK. My hope is that once Nano is over and this manuscript gets shelved in the darkest, dustiest archives of my computer’s hard drive, I can take what I’ve learned about being productive and apply it to my more complicated, perfection-mired projects and actually succeed in finishing them! If that happens, every second of torture endured will have been worth it.
I still don’t believe it’s wrong to be a perfectionist, that it’s a literary sin to edit and revise while you work, and I fully expect to return to that routine. But when that starts to stand in the way of ever finishing anything, when the Perfection Plague has withered your muse into a ghost, it’s time to try something new. After all, they didn’t coin the phrase, “Outside the box” for nothing. Care to join me?