No one who’s ever examined my life would use the word perfectionist to describe me. After all I’m surrounded by the kind of chaos that makes a three-ring circus look like a trip to the spa. Dirty dishes, mounds of laundry, unpacked boxes from our recent move piled in the basement . . . you get the picture. It’s not at all how I like to live, but it’s my life and I’m thankful for it in all its messy, imperfect glory. But I confess that after a mountain of unexpected changes, I am struggling with the ongoing lack of routine and organization. It’s coming, but there are many tiny steps in the process and my positive attitude is at war with my inner perfectionist and my preferred coping mechanism—procrastination.
Perfectionism’s relationship to procrastination is like my inner five year old thinking “if I can’t do it perfectly, then I won’t do it at all.” But the scary thing is that perfectionistic thinking actually interferes with creativity and innovation. That’s some serious motivation to stop hidden perfectionism from contributing to writer’s block.
So as writers, what can we do to minimize the negative effects of perfectionism and it’s chokehold on the creative process?
Here’s what I’m trying.
1. It’s Getting Very Drafty Around Here: I’m trying to accept that a first draft will contain good, bad and indifferent portions. That’s why there is “delete,” “cut,” and “save as” functions on my computer.
2. I Thought Only Gorillas Lived in the Mist: Instead of waiting for the perfect writing moment, I’m learning to write “in the midst.” It would be fantastic to carve out large chunks of quiet time, but that’s not my reality. Others might be able to get a babysitter or use children’s nap times. Some people might get up early, stay up late or write during their lunch break. Each person’s unique situation requires a unique response. Accepting it and adapting keeps me from procrastinating “until.”
3. My GPS Can’t Find This Moving Target: Focusing too much on the end product can take the fun out of the process. Rewarding small achievements helps me to feel like my writing is a break from other more mundane aspects of my life and makes the creative process more enjoyable. If I focus only on the fact that I still need to write 15,000 words to finish my first draft, I miss the pleasure of creating an unexpected scene or making myself laugh through the antics of my character. It’s not perfection, but it’s a step forward in the process of completion.
4. Trial and Error Have Nothing to Do with Court TV: Playdough and Post-It Notes were both invented by accident. My recent crazy life has given me many new ideas, frames of reference, experiences and inspirations that hopefully will lead me toward an unexpected creation that I would never have discovered otherwise.
5. Bibliotherapy is Way Less Expensive Than a Massage: I just read a book from my to-be- read list that fit well with the conflict between my dream life and my current reality. A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban features the less-than-perfect life of almost eleven year old Zoe and the conflict between her dream of being a concert pianist at Carnegie Hall and her real life playing old TV theme songs on her Perfectone 60 organ. Zoe’s life is further complicated by a father who is limited by an unnamed anxiety disorder and a workaholic mother who is both physically and emotionally unavailable. The friction between Zoe’s dreams of perfection and the reality of her life is very funny and reminded me to look for the humor in my life’s ironies. Reading a book that aligns with themes I’m experiencing or a struggle I’m having with a work-in-progress helps me restore creative energy when life and writing seem to be in direct conflict with each other.
Care to Share?
1. What are the strategies you use when “real life” collides with your writing time or creative thinking?
2. What books do you like to read when life is less than perfect?
Joanne Prushing Johnson writes middle grade books with humor and heart. She recently relocated back to Ohio from Nebraska with her rambunctious brood including her handsome hubby, four boys and huge hound. In the process, she traded the suburbs for the city and Runza burgers for Skyline Chili and that is perfectly fine with her. Joanne is represented by Quinlan Lee of Adams Literary.