Saturday, December 6, 2014


I have a few confessions.

1. I once placed a "Tacky Christmas Award" on some hapless family's mailbox. Yes, it's true. 
In my defense, I was new in town and coerced by a band of merry, eggnog-infused co-workers.

2. When I go to the movies, I sometimes sneak in contraband water bottles. Don't judge me. 

3. During my ninth grade Spanish exam, I whispered an answer to a classmate. BUSTED. Parent conference and abundant mortification followed.

4. When I was fifteen, my friend Sheri and I soaped up a neighbor's windows on Halloween. But he was the creepy, walk-around-in-your-underwear-with-the-curtains-open kind of guy, so he deserved it. 

5. I was one of the dancers on Richard Simmons' original Sweatin' to the Oldies video.

Ok, I made up that last one. I did own the VHS, though. That's embarrassing enough.

So here's the BIG confession - the ONE you've been waiting for. Are you ready?????? Here goes:

SHHHHHHHHH...    I'm a perfectionist.

Disappointed?  Lame? You were expecting something juicier? Sorry to disappoint. But don't go yet; there's a point to my "confession," I promise! 

Those who know me well won't find this at all surprising. Take my mahjong girls, for example. I'm pretty sure they take secret bets about how long it will take me to straighten an out-of-place tile. In fact, I would bet they sometimes tap a three dot or a six bam slightly out of line just to watch my internal drama unfold.
 First, I surreptitiously eyeball the errant tile a few times. Next, I begin to squirm and lose focus (another advantage to their devious machinations). Then, when I can no longer stand it, when my head is about to come unglued and start spinning like a zombie-child's plaything, I nudge the offending tile into perfect alignment with its brethren and finally exhale, amid their laughter, eye-rolling, and stealthy exchange of quarters under the table.

Here's another example. From my junior year in high school, until I graduated college, I worked at Service Merchandise. Remember that place- the king of catalog showrooms in the eighties? I was a check-out girl, and the perfect employee. I showed up on time (Yes, friends, there was a time I was punctual!), polished the display silver until it was fit for Buckingham Palace, and meticulously dusted the endless rows of glass shelves and everything on them. I also maintained a cheerful and professional demeanor, even on Black Friday, or when a customer, irate because each of his items was out of stock, forgot the boundaries of personal space and human decency. Well, actually, one time I broke down in tears. The guy's wife was scandalized and apologized profusely while pushing him out the door. 

In any event, I was (in the immortal words of Mary Poppins) "practically perfect in every way."

So imagine my surprise, when during an annual review, among the glowing comments from the assistant manager, Mr. Hornfeck (his real name), I heard the following words: "Your only fault is that you're too perfect."


"Your perfectionism slows you down," he said. "You don't have to polish the backs of the silver platters; no one sees them. And you can miss a piece of dust here and there. No one but you will notice."

To add insult to injury, instead of the maximum seventy-five cent raise, I was awarded fifty, bringing my salary up to a whopping $5.25 an hour. I am still not over that.

So what does all this have to do with writing? With MY writing? Simply put, everything

Perfectionism can be crippling for a writer, especially in the drafting phase. Instead of focusing on the story, the perfectionist gets caught up in the nuance and sound of the words, the placement and use of punctuation, the careful crafting of phrases and clauses -- all those things that should come later, during the revision stage.  If I give in to the compulsion, I could revise one sentence eight to ten times before moving on. Thank goodness for word processors. If we were still in the typewriter days, I would undoubtedly spend a small fortune on correction tape! 

But that's not productive writing. It disturbs the flow of ideas and stymies progress, leading to exhaustion and frustration, not to mention that nagging, uninvited guest: self-doubt. 

So what's a poor perfectionist to do? It's not so easy to turn off the inner-editor, but it is possible. What works best for me is to have a deadline and a clear goal. Challenges like NaNoWriMo, PiBoIdMo and the like, are perfect for the perfectionist, as it forces us to concentrate on the content, rather than the craft. Not that craft isn't important, but as I read somewhere, readers will forgive mediocre writing if it's a great story with compelling characters, but they'll quickly abandon a work with gorgeous writing that lacks those same things. 
By the way, I change "mediocre" four times in that last sentence (sheepish grin).  What can I say? Old habits are hard to break. I'll just have to remember Mr. Hornfeck's words: 

"You can miss a piece of dust here and there. No one but you will notice."

Happy (unfettered) writing, my friends!


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