I hate reading my writing after it’s been published. Nearly every time I find things I want to change. If I’m forced to read from something of mine that’s been published, nearly always I’ll have been at it with a red pen before I read, and what I read will be slightly different from what was published.
I have a writing friend who is a far better writer than me, and yet she’s had nothing (at least fiction-wise) published. Her stories are never finished and she can’t allow herself to submit them until they are. The problem is she’s looking for perfection and she’s never going to find it. We have to accept our stories will never be perfect, never be finished.
I once read about a writer who wrote a sentence until it was perfect and then went on to the next one. This was how he wrote his books. Then when he was finished with his first draft, it was also his final. No editing needed. I read that but didn’t believe a word of it, or if it was true, I accepted that person never finished a single story.
I’m reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing by Anne Lamott at the moment. It’s a book about writing and being a writer- more clearly it is about surviving being a writer. She says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” She’s a big fan of writing a shitty first draft. I am too. Your first draft of any writing should be free and crazy, you should let your mind wander everywhere because in those corners of your mind are little gems, forgotten memories that can often end up being the central core of your story. Only on your edits, the many rounds of edits, do you cut away and find the real story under all of the shitty first draft. But you must have the shitty first draft, and trying to be perfect stops you from achieving that. If you’re trying to be perfect then you’re stopping yourself from making mistakes, you’re stopping yourself from being free.
Besides perfectionism curtailing your ability to reach into your subconscious and let everything flow onto the page, either good or bad, and perfectionism stopping you from finishing, perfectionism can also keep you from writing at all.
Most writers come to writing after being fanatic readers. They love stories and books and they want to be a more integral part of them. But sometimes good writing can scare you. In your mind there is always this voice that says- “You could never write like her. You could never write that well.”
I once had an obsession with Jeffrey Eugenides. I wanted to write just like him. I wished one day I could write a book exactly like Middlesex, the book that brought on my Jeffrey Eugenides obsession. I tried a few things and I failed and I thought – I’m crap and should find something else to do because I can never be a writer like Jeffrey Eugenides. But then a writer friend said to me- “Yes, you cannot write like Jeffrey Eugenides, you can only write like Lauri Kubuitsile.” That was so profound for me, it turned my mind completely. I’d never be a perfect Jeffrey Eugenides, in fact I’d never be a perfect Lauri Kubuitsile either, but I have an obligation to write my Lauri Kubuitsile stories because I’m the only one who can. I need to ignore the Perfectionism Devil whispering in my ear and get on with it.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t try our best; we shouldn’t work hard at our writing and improve every day- we should. What I’m saying is nobody’s perfect. Perfect is one of the many things offered up by our screwed up society that sets us up for failure, it stops us from making all the beautiful mistakes that make us eventually find success, that lead us to the life we were meant to live. We’re told there is the perfect face, the perfect marriage, the perfect job, the perfect house, the perfect body. It’s all a lie, a terrible lie that brings so much sadness to our already sad world.
I have a quote in my office which says-“You’re only willing to succeed to the same degree you’re willing to fail” (Wendell Mayes). I believe this because that’s the only way to reach for those stars so high up in the heavens, the only way to achieve our most daring dreams. We really shouldn’t be striving for perfection; we should instead be forever pushing ourselves to the furthest limits where failure and success live side by side and where either one is okay because at least we know we’re growing and trying and daring.
(This was one of my columns at It's All Write, my weekly column in The Voice newspaper)