Thank you to Writers in the Storm and to Colleen Story for this very balanced article on perfectionism and writing.
Google “perfectionism” and “writers” and you’d think perfectionism was a deadly disease.
Pages pop up offering tips for overcoming the “disorder,” warnings for avoiding the “dangerous” tendencies, and help for “dealing” with it.
Even the beloved Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) is quoted as saying:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life….”
I’m not one to question the wisdom of Anne Lamott, but that quote does make me wince a little. I mean, cramped and insane? Is it really that bad?
What if you are a writer who happens to be a perfectionist? Are you doomed to failure before you even start?
Why Do We Pick on Perfectionists?
We all have unique character traits, and they can have both positive and negative sides to them. Someone who is very detail oriented, for example, is likely to shine at carrying a project through to a successful conclusion, but may have a hard time seeing the bigger picture, or envisioning the overall end game.
On the other side of the coin, someone who is a brilliant visionary is likely to have difficulty remembering everything that needs to be done on a project, and without help, may miss something really important.
The problem (or blessing) is that most of us can’t change these inherent characteristics. Not completely.
Studies have shown this to be true. According to the New York Times, for instance:
“The largest and longest studies to carefully analyze personality throughout life reveal a core of traits that remain remarkably stable over the years…”
Paul T. Costa Jr., scientist emeritus at the laboratory of behavioral science at the National Institutes of Health, found similar results in his studies:
“It’s not that personality is fixed and can’t change. But it’s relatively stable and consistent. What you see at 35, 40 is what you’re going to see at 85, 90.”
So to be so hard on perfectionism, above all other traits, seems to be a little unfair. After all, the perfectionist can’t really stop being so. Not entirely. To ask someone to do that is like asking a visionary to swap and become detail oriented, or the detail oriented to suddenly take on the visionary attitude.
They can try, but they’re likely to end up frustrated, and worse, to lose confidence in their abilities as a whole.
Yet there’s no doubt that though there are some good sides to perfectionism (really!), it can also have a damaging, negative influence on a writing career.
So what’s a perfectionist writer to do?