The Pressure of Perfectionism

As you might recall from my list of goals to achieve in 2019, one of my plans for the year was to finish edits on the current draft of Guises to Keep. And as you may have seen in my June Check-In a few weeks ago, I am way behind where I wanted to be at this point. At first, I had chalked it up to failing to account for the length of time it can take me to edit a single chapter since my method consists of several steps tackling different things so I can focus on them one-on-one. But that isn’t the only thing holding me back. I also struggle with a nasty streak of perfectionism.

Ever since I was a kid, I was the kind of person who wanted to get things right on the first try. I loved learning new things, but I absolutely hated failing along the way. My mom mentioned a while back how bubbles were banned for a time in my household because I would get so frustrated because I wasn’t able to blow them as a toddler.

In school, we prioritize GPAs over what we are learning. Our grades, and therefore the perception of our intelligence, is based in our ability to memorize and regurgitate information such as dates in history rather than connecting with them, getting to know the people involved and stepping into their lives before, during, and after the events.  As a result, we become so focused on getting high grades and class ranks rather than enjoying what we are learning and becoming invested in the material. It’s part of why I want to go back and reread all of the books that were required reading in my high school English classes; since I had to cater my interpretations to align with the teachers’ for the sake of my grade, I was not as able to form my own opinions while I was looking for what they wanted to hear or read in a report.

Even now, I don’t like to take my time with new things. I’ve recently gotten back into piano. It’s been about two years since I had any lessons, having taken it for a semester in college as an elective. Now that I’ve gotten my keyboard set up, I’ve been mostly playing “Jet Black Heart” by 5 Seconds of Summer since that was the piece I had learned for the final exam. At this point, it’s playing from memory while I’m learning the bridge.

I also went in with a playlist of songs I wanted to learn, from folk songs I liked to film scores and pop songs. Among them was my favorite piece from the video game Detroit: Become Human titled “Little One.” It sounds like such a simple piece, but the fact is it’s a lot more complex than I anticipated, particularly in the way the left and right hands are playing two different things at once in a few measures. I made myself put “Little One” off for a bit so I can attempt it when I am a little more familiar with the instrument, but at the same time I keep coming back to it because of how much I want to be able to play it. But then I get frustrated with the fact that the only thing I can even kind of play are “Jet Black Heart” and “Greensleeves.” I don’t want to be plunking out nursery rhymes even though I know I need to do it in order to be able to eventually play pieces like “Little One.”

The most aggravating part of that piano class was one of my classmates who had been playing piano for twelve years. This girl was wickedly talented but that made the class more difficult in a way because it meant the class wasn’t going in on the same level; at times, it would feel like she was showing off, even though she wasn’t, and her skill level was only the product of twelve years of playing piano.

Even though the only expectations set by the instructor were to become familiar with the instrument and be able to play a four-hand piece with him in addition to any song of our choice in front of the class for the final exam, the aforementioned classmate set a different standard for me. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to just sit down and play the theme from The Legend of Zelda from memory for the final like she did, I felt like I was wasting time playing old nursery rhymes and wanted to move on to the bigger things, 5SOS and beyond.

That mentality has stuck with me even now, as I am playing for a hobby. I don’t want to practice. I just want to be good, if not better than good. Even though I know there is a part of me that knows it doesn’t happen overnight, I still want to skip ahead.

As is said in Pride and Prejudice, “No excellence in music is to be acquired without constant practice.”

My experience with that particular classmate is not only an example of why I am frustrated by the piano at times, but with writing.

It comes down to perfectionism.

When we think of our favorite authors, we are apt to think of their published works.

Literary genius.

Masters of the Craft.

And then we compare them to our own works, and we see how imperfect our drafts are.

Slovenly Messes

Flaming Dumpster Fire.

Unpublishable Failures.

This is made even worse in today’s age where so many social media platforms are readily available at our fingertips. We log in and can be absolutely bombarded by posts, sometimes by friends or fairly and sometimes by complete strangers. We get exposed to happily-in-love couples getting engaged or married, people posting selfies with landmarks on the other side of the globe, getting promoted at work, and buying the perfect home to live the perfect life.

Depending on who you follow, Twitter can be flooded with the same things, but catered to your own goals and aspirations. New bakers are more inclined to follow master chefs, those looking to become healthier may follow fitness gurus, new makeup artists might follow beauty YouTubers or Instagrammers, and writers follow other writers.

It’s not long before we start trying to measure up. We try to follow a recipe but end up with a mound of frosting sliding off a cake rather than the pristine unicorn birthday cake we hoped for. We see someone with sculpted abs be able to do an intense workout with minimal sweat while we get winded even attempting to jog to the convenience store down the hill. We look like a raccoon when following a makeup tutorial on how to do the perfect smoky eye.

And again, we see we are not perfect.

But just as we apply filters to our photos, we apply filters to the parts of our lives we upload.

We don’t know how long those fitness gurus have been working out before they became internet celebrities, how many cakes the best bakers have burnt while learning, or how many raccoon days a popular makeup artist had in their past while learning how to blend eyeshadow properly.

All the same, we need to remember that a lot of times, the most popular social media stars have had opportunities we cannot boast. Some makeup artists have access to more expensive pallets because their videos are sponsored by those companies. Bakers may have better equipment than our home kitchens possess. Fitness gurus know what to do because they know how their particular body functions, and there is a good chance their structure differs from yours.

This isn’t to say these people haven’t worked to get to where they are. It’s rare to have success like that be handed to us on a silver platter.

However, because we don’t see the progress and failures leading up to success, we are made to believe they woke up as experts.

Actors are another great example of this overnight success concept.

If I were to describe a certain actor as playing only these roles…

Bedoli, The Tudors, Episode: “In Cold Blood” (2007)

Mal, Alarm (2008)

Jack Conroy, The Secret Scripture (2016)

…there is a chance you may not be able to identify who I am referring to.

Now if I were to list these roles…

John Mitchell, Being Human (2009-2011)

Kíli, The Hobbit (2012, 2013, 2014)

Ross Poldark, Poldark (2015-2019)

…you might be able to identify this particular actor as Aidan Turner.

The thing is, we’re quick to recognize actors for their major roles, but we don’t always think about the parts that lead up to them. We might have a little laugh when we see a prepubescent version of the latest Hollywood heartthrob popping up in an episode of NCIS or laugh at how terrible a British actor’s American accent is when they had a minor role in short film compared to a blockbuster movie where they were in the leading role, but the fact is these were all stepping stones in their career. Though they might have had only a handful of lines, it was an experience that helped to shape them as performers. But we also don’t always hear about the parts they auditioned for but didn’t get a callback, or the productions they did get a callback for but were ultimately not cast in. If we do, it’s come up in an interview where the actor is promoting a major film that typically isn’t their first starring role. And even before that, we don’t always know what kind of jobs they had before the first production they were cast in.

After all, Harrison Ford, famous for portraying iconic characters like Han Solo and Indiana Jones, was once employed as a carpenter.

We don’t always consider the little successes along the way to making it big.

Even on a smaller scale, with people who haven’t graced the silver screen, this can happen. We all have our dream jobs and are taught to believe that we can achieve anything we desire, but at times this can indirectly teach us that this happens quickly.

After graduating from college, it took me just under six months to get hired someplace. And it was a seasonal retail job that lasted all of three weeks. Enough to add another credential on my resume, put some money in my bank account, and make me wonder if my degree was even worth it. I don’t regret going to college, but I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had put it off for a year or two, or had gone for a different major with the intention of working in a “more profitable field.”

It would be a little bit after that seasonal gig ended before I managed to find my next job. It was also retail, and temporary because the chain was going out of business. Between two locations, I worked there for just four months.

Meanwhile, people I went to school with are actually working in their fields with decently-paying jobs. I see posts on social media about their business trips or promotions, their coworkers throwing a goodbye party as they move on to a better job, and so many other things that make me feel kind of stuck. Like I haven’t achieved anything.

Sometimes, they’ll ask how my writing is going and when I’m going to be published. And that’s when I really start to feel the pressure because I haven’t done the thing I’ve been talking about doing since I was fourteen.

And that’s just one small corner of the internet.

The #WritingCommunity on Twitter is so encouraging and supportive of one another, there are times where I’ve felt like I’m not up to snuff. I’m not able to promote any books because I haven’t published any. I’ve not had any fan art sent in by readers or had stellar reviews to retweet. I’ve not yet started querying agents. I’m not currently in a position where I can whip out thousands of words in a sitting. I don’t have the means to travel great distances to attend writing conferences. While I do share my weekly blog posts when they go live, I find it’s difficult to share the progress I’m making with my novels because I’m not making as much as I want to be.

I’ve always had a habit of comparing myself to others in pretty much anything. Every class. Every competition. Every day. My perfectionism continues to get in the way of accomplishing things. I don’t want to start querying agents until I have a manuscript I am ready to let see the light of day, but that won’t happen without an editor. But I don’t want to send my manuscript off to an editor until I’ve made my writing perfect. As I’m in the process of self-editing, especially with Guises to Keep, I’m always finding new things wrong with it. Mistakes. Flaws. Things I need to add in, things I need to rework.

It’s a vicious, never-ending cycle that I need to break.

The most meaningful experience of my London visit in college was encountering one of Jane Austen’s notebooks on display at The British Library. I spent so long just staring at it behind the glass, in complete awe and disbelief that I was the closest to her I would ever get (even though I did manage to track down the portrait drawn by her sister that is now on display at the National Portrait Gallery). But more importantly, it reminded me so much of my own writing.

The page was filled with lines crossed out with edits squeezed in above and little annotations in her own hand. It was messy. It wasn’t perfect.

And it looked a lot like my own notebook as I was drafting Bound to the Heart at the same time.

Even though she is recognized among the best writers not only of her time but in literary history, and her works are often used as examples of what to do, Jane Austen’s first attempts at storytelling were not perfect in the first draft. She made changes along the way and rewrote things until she was satisfied.

Remembering that feeling of seeing my own first draft right next to Jane’s is something I’ve been keeping in mind for the past year. Cliché as it might sound, coming face to face with Jane’s notebook lifted a weight off my shoulders because it alleviated that pressure of having to be perfect.

We all know about the “shitty first draft” and its purpose: to exist, and to allow us to explore our stories with the knowledge they are not going to be pristine masterpieces. Our first, second, even our third drafts and so on are not going to be perfect. But when we allow ourselves to compare our early drafts with the final, published works of renown authors. That’s the thing that gets us into trouble now and then because we fall into the rabbit hole of edits and revisions, scrapping and starting over.

The problem is, we don’t always know when to stop. We have the idea in our heads that we stop when it’s done. Perfect.

But is it actually possible? After all, when we finally muster up the courage to ship our manuscripts off to editors, agents, and publishers, they’re likely to come back with even more changes to be made. Things that evaded our notice, or that we didn’t even know were problems.

And that is absolutely okay.

No one is an expert in absolutely every aspect of everything. Just as we hire plumbers to fix our pipes or attend classes on new hobbies we’re taking up in our spare time, writers work with editors and agents to help put the finishing touches on our manuscripts before they’re published.

Yes, you should ensure that the piece you are sending an editor is in its best self, focus on making it its best self that you can achieve on your own at this moment in time. Editors know they won’t be getting ready-to-publish stories. If they were, what would there be left for them to do? This is especially true for fledgling writers like myself, who have yet to make their professional debuts as authors. Novices aren’t pros, and even pros need help.

In our modern culture, the way social media can be altered to present only the best parts of a person’s life and what they want others to perceive about them, there can be times where accomplishing your own goals feels too out of reach because you’re not at the same level as everyone else. The thing to remember is this: experts were beginners once. They, too, had slip-ups and failures. Their success didn’t happen at the snap of a finger, but took time and effort to get them to where they are today. And, one day, you might be the person others compare themselves to.

Like with an actor’s failed auditions, it’s not always common to hear about the challenges an author experienced at various stages of their publishing journey until they’ve reached the end of it and are in the process of promoting their book. This is just another example of how we present our successes, It’s fair to say there are reasons we might not want to share our rejection letters on social media, as it not only makes us look unprofessional and could easily result in other agents or publishers less willing to work with us, but it also adds to the narrative of instant wins. In some ways, it’s almost taboo to talk about failures. But the fact is, this is something everyone will face regardless of what they are pursuing. It can actually be really inspiring to see how long it took an author to connect with the agent that was the perfect match or how many rejections they received along the way.

Personally, I want to make a greater effort to share my failures and stumbles along the way to publication, on this blog and my social media profiles. Writing a novel is a journey. Having written two and a half with plenty of ideas I want to explore in the future, I’m somewhere in the middle. There is a part of me that wishes I had started this website sooner, so I could track my progress from the start. At fourteen, when I started Guises to Keep, I thought I knew exactly what I was doing. Once I started taking actual writing classes in college, I began to see how naïve I was about essentially everything. But I am glad to have made that realization and work through it, just as I’m working through the perfectionism streak that has often plagued my editing process.

Writing is a journey of learning that doesn’t have an exact ending point. There are pitfalls, but just as many milestones. The only thing we can do is keep moving forwards, doing the best we can with what we have and telling our stories to the best of our abilities at this point in time.

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