The Curse Of The Perfectionist

Yeah yeah, I know. I changed my damn blog colors again. But ironically, this leads me to a topic I've been wanting to post about for a while. My perfectionism.

I think many people don't understand perfectionism and the curse that it is. People may look at my sloppy desk at home with papers piled on top of each other, dust streaked on the surface, books and slim jims lying side be side in an disorganized mess and raise an eyebrow as I say I'm a perfectionist about organizing my work space. But I am and the mess drives me crazy, but the main thing about perfectionists that people don't understand is that if a perfectionist doesn't feel that they can't do it perfectly then she doesn't want to do it at all. Almost can't. It's one of the hardest things for me to make myself do something when I know I can't do it perfectly. I'm constantly staring at our items on our fireplace mantel, adjusting them a half of an inch here, a half of an inch there until it's perfectly and evenly placed. I'm obsessed with symmetry, it makes me peaceful inside when things are set up symmetrically. I can be distracted with these small details for hours, driving my husband nuts and wasting time over something completely insignificant, but I can't help myself. I literally can't half-ass anything. If I start something, then I'm putting myself into it 110%, which is why I often get stressed and overwhelmed. I take on multiple projects and try to put myself into it 110% and there's never quite enough of me to go around. Often I get stalled in projects I take on because I know I don't have the time to devote to it 110% and I can't stand only devoting say 80% to, and so I don't start it at all which usually leads to guilt and stress. I mean, if I can't do it perfectly, why do it at all?

Which is where my perfectionism acts as procrastination for writing.

My professors always preached the get the first draft down without going back and editing a word and then go through your revisions and edits. I've tried so hard to follow this advice, but I find myself going back and changing a word, then a sentence, then a paragraph and the next thing you know, I erase the everything I'd written out of frustration, feeling like a complete failure. I want it to be perfect right away. I can't stand leaving a story unfinished and imperfect, which leads to writing sessions lasting no shorter than three hours every time I write, which then leads to me writing less because really, who has three hours regularly to devote to writing every day? I tried to write one hour every day just so I was writing regularly, but I was so obsessive that I couldn't Only write an hour, and by the end of it I'd be lucky if I had anything worth keeping since I'd butchered it to pieces already with revisions before the story was even finished.

I'm not sure where my perfectionism comes from. Perhaps it's from growing up with the high standards Chinese parents typically put on their children (any grade below and 'A' was a travesty in the family, but all an 'A' would get would be a dismissive nod because you're supposed to get straight 'A's, it wasn't necessarily a great achievement). I mean look at my family, as an honor student who went to very good college (Miami University of Ohio) I'm the underachiever. I have a cousin who went to Stanford, one who went to Northwestern and my brother went to Washington University at St. Louis. All extremely good top notch schools. So perhaps that is a part in my perfectionism, but I also have to think it's partly my personality. I'm an obsessive person, which I think many writers are, it works well with our purpose. Writers often have to obsess about a certain time period or an event in history, etc. if it's involved in their story. To write as other people you have to become an expert in what they're experts in whether it's biology, dancing or politics. So that obsessive personality works for me, at times. But I think it feeds my perfectionism. I'm obsessed with it and get anxious when things aren't perfect. What do I really think will happen if it's not perfect? I'm not really sure, there isn't a clear cut image in my head of the disaster that would ensue, just a feeling of impending disaster that I can't shake.

Anyways, I'm trying to train myself to just write shit and be okay with it because every once in a while you strike gold and that's what it's all about. I know I have some mental disease, but we all have our own little mental diseases so I'm okay with it. I just need to figure out my work arounds and keep reminding myself to prioritize and that it's okay to not be perfect.

Heh, like that'll happen. Oh well, at least I tried. (*Note: as further proof of my perfectionism, I've already edited this post about ten times.)

What personality flaws/quirks keep you from writing? How do you get around them?

Links Away!

What a cool idea! An Online bookfair! It's October 3-5, 2006 at the Love of Reading Website. Make sure to check it out. Thank you to The Elegant Variation for alerting me to this great event.

Also from The Elegant Variation today, Poets & Writers offers a directory of writers and their agent contacts. It also tells you if the writer is willing to do readings. What a cool way to connect with your favorite writer or harass their agent to pick up your unpublished novel about space creatures from the planet Znargf that like to eat chocolate donuts. I mean, come on, that will Sell baby!

A new book club around the block started by Amazon. Apparently Amazon is teaming up with Penguin Classics to start a new book club that will be hosted on a blog at the site. It should produce an interesting book selection since the first book selected is fairly obscure book Fifth Buisness by Roberston Davies. If you're desperate for new books to read, which I never am since I already own so many that I need to read before I die, check it out. It should produce some interesting reads. Thanks to The Millions for this link.

I just now noticed that this is my 100th post! Wahoo! I'm a posting freak. :)


Mas said...

I don't think I'm a perfectionist: I just have high standards! But not consistently across the board. For example, I'm perfectly happy to do housework in a slapdash fashion, if at all.

But I hear you on not wanting to do something unless you can do it really well. My theory is that I missed out on learning something when I was a child: how to start off at something, being really crap at it to begin with, persevere, and over time get better. The examples I'm thinking of that give you this experience are learning to play a musical instrument and playing a sport. Academic pursuits at school always came easy so I don't feel they count.

Writing is a peculiar case. Like most people, probably, every single time I believe I could have done it better, but at some point, almost of its own volition, I let go of a piece of writing quite naturally. It's almost as if I need to have my energies/brain space back for the next thing that comes along.

Off-topic: how are you going with Crime & Punishment? Powerful stuff. It used to be my favourite Dostoevsky novel, but currently I rank Demons more highly. I went to St Petersburg in 2003 and had a surprisingly good time poking around the Dostoevsky museum (an apartment he used to live in). I don't know why I loved being in that space so much.

mai wen said...

That's amazing that you're able to let go of your piece of writing like that! I'm so jealous. I agonize over it and even after I send it out I still revise it and pick at it until I'm so sick of it I don't want to look at it Or submit it anywhere. Argh.

That's a Really interesting idea about missing out on starting out at something badly and persevering through it because I never really had much experience with that either. And I'm horrible at persevering through things even now. Like I'll start a yoga class and miss half the classes and never go back, or I'll try to take up training for a marathon and stop or I'll start a scrapbook project and only get halfway. Damn, now I'm seeing an ugly pattern of not finishing things and I think it's because I get frustrated when it's not going well and I just overwhelm myself by having high expectations of doing "perfectly" that I can't take it and give up. I never did sports except cross country in high school, and cross country's easy to get better at, you just keep running. I never really learned a skill either, school, writing, etc. - the things I'm good at - came naturally to me.

So, yes, I'm a perfectionist and also have a habit of not finishing things when it's not going well. This has been helpful. Thank you!

As for Crime and Punishment, unfortunately I had to put it down for a few weeks because of a couple of Crazy stressful weeks involving deadlines at work, GREs, family health issues, etc. and am just now getting back into it. So far I really like it, it is very heavy stuff. I've never read Russian before (not counting Lolita), so this is my first experience and it's very dark and I really love it. I'm so disgusted by parts of it but I'm so pulled in and morbidly intrigued too. It's great! I can't wait to finish it! That's so cool you went to the Dostoevsky museum. What was it like?

Mas said...

I agree, reading Dostoevsky is a strange, unsettling experience. It's like being whacked over the head repeatedly. You know you're being manipulated shamelessly, but you keep coming back for more.

I was intrigued by my response to the museum: I gazed and gazed at his hat in a glass case. Usually I don't fetishise famous people's places and possessions, but I was utterly hooked, wandering around rooms he had lived in, seeing things he had seen. Yuk: it makes me sound like a gushing fan. Oh well, if I was going to be anybody's groupie, it probably would be a writer who set me off. But not a dead one??

mai wen said...

I totally agree, if you're going to be a groupie at least it's a writer!! The cool thing about admiring writers is that it's usually genuinely for their talent, versus movie stars where most people admire them for superficial reasons rather than their talent.

What a cool experience, if I'm ever in the area I'll have to stop by the museum! :)


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