The Pain of Perfectionism | Writer Anxieties, OCD and Coping Mechanism
It’s getting late, you’ve been working on your article for days now, thankfully, after several “final” drafts and edits, as well as the umpteenth reread, you’re now feeling confident enough to submit your work to your client or ready to hit the publish button.
Moments after you’ve hit “send”, you let out a heavy sigh; you are relieved, elated; and it feels good because the deadline has been met or the project is now complete.
Adrenalin is kicking in, you’re actually even feeling slightly emotional, but happy.
This should be where the chapter ends; the beginning of your mind focusing on something else, or at least, as it’s late, you should be turning in for the night. But when you do, you can’t sleep.
Instead of enjoying some satisfying well-earned slumber time, your mind is slowly succumbing to niggling self-doubt. You let out another sigh, this time it’s one of dread. What if the client hates what I have written? Oh, why did I press “publish” tonight when I could have revised it one more time? I should’ve waited until the morning before submitting.
The Pain of Perfectionism
And so it goes on and on until you finally manage to get to sleep, just as the birds are beginning their chorus. And when your alarm goes off a little while later, the article (or the blog post) is the first thing on your mind. At this point you want to scream out loud and groan, you do both, annoyed and angry at yourself for caring so much.
Sound familiar to you?
Have you ever felt: I am so unhappy with what I sent yesterday, so today I am going to spend time correcting all the things I’ve been feeling unhappy with. In whatever free time you have, you focus on editing until it’s time to take a break, but then the next time you pick up you have lost your flow.
So you re-read the entire thing again before once more, you painstakingly begin deleting words, adding sentences, removing paragraphs and adding other smaller details and arguments to polish your work, word by word, paragraph by paragraph. One page at a time.
Zen and The Art of Writing
Writing well is the formation of thoughts in coherent topics and subtopics. Think of your grand idea as a big house. And your subplots as various rooms in the house. You start with the boundary or the overall description of the house but then you move inside.
You talk about the lawn and the backyard and the fences. Inside each room, you describe what is present there. You do these things until your hands give up due to being tired.
Next time you pick up, you remember the grand plot and move on to the next room and talk about it. You then go on to the kitchen and to the bathroom. But once finished, usually depending on:
1) the completion of the main story,
2) word count goal,
3) time, you edit it
You read your edited work and again find several holes. You find tangential stories which are not really driving the main plot or main argument that you are making. You remove them.
Similarly, you find holes where you are missing information so you find phrases that act like glue, joining the two chains of thoughts or paragraphs into one story. As you find these holes, you re-write and complete your story. You edit it again. Sometimes re-inserting a lot of what you have previously deleted!
You keep working on it until you have no time, energy or emotional interest left in the project. This is when your work is complete. It is not perfect yet, and you realize it will never be.
Creative by nature is anti-perfection. “What is imperfect is complete,” says Zen wisdom. Finally, you re-send the piece, hoping that your client hasn’t been anywhere near the article you have sent previously.
I am devoting this blog to this topic because while I am sure many of us feel it, I haven’t seen too much written about it. Anxiety-like this is perfectly natural. It is a working style of the creatives, I believe.
First, you have to let your idea come out. You watch it from a little distance, then the draft is written and corrected. We don’t polish when we create, nor do we know how to complete the full story. Only after 80 percent of it is laid out, do we go on to finish the remainder.
My first book Naked Soul: The Erotic Love Poems was written and published this way. I sent a manuscript with 150 poems and finally selected 95 for publishing. Then I later added 13 more poems (during various rounds of editing) and made changes to the Introduction and book’s back matter.
I sent the book for editing a third time (with my second editor). That’s how the book came out nicely. But ask me today, I can tell you, if the book still exists as a manuscript, I would replace certain words and leave out a certain poem and I would add another one and then rewrite some lines, and so on and so forth.
A book really never ends. There is always something more that you can do to make it perfect, a masterpiece.
“Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.” – Erica Jong
Courage to Write
The “courage” in the above quote is highly important. I think us writers are actually too hard on ourselves at times, but the very nature of the beast dictates that we will be judged.
Writing invites judgment; judgment from others and judgment from ourselves, but we are probably our own harshest critics when we should really be kinder to ourselves.
I believe that writing takes commitment, skill, patience and most of all, courage. We need to remember this whenever any hint of self-loathing or the confidence-wrecking gremlin kicks in.
“A lot of writers believe that the trauma and the angst that you feel is an essential part of the craft.” – Amy Tan
If it leaves a writer in a negative state then I don’t know if I would agree with Amy Tan‘s “essential” part, but normal yes! Is it essential? I am not so sure. It depends (writer to writer).
However, in his book The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, writer, Ralph Keyes documents many of the anxieties that writers feel and acknowledges that fear and anxiety are both normal. But he, like Amy Tan, also believes that anxiety is an important and essential part of the writing process.
His book includes anecdotes and strategies from other writers (naked writing anyone?) and offers useful suggestions for his readers such as scheduling your writing time into your most productive time of day.
I know that this isn’t always possible, but not writing during your least productive time of day (in my case, late at night), is, and in my opinion, should be avoided at all costs.
Fear is the Opposite of Courage
Other famous writers have spoken about their coping strategies too. In an interview writer Jonathan Franzen confesses that, in the past, he has feared fame and reproach continually. And the way he has taken refuge from himself and transcended his fear?
Well, through writing and trying to create good sentences, which he feels loyal enough to continue with. So, basically, he overcomes his writing anxieties, with, more writing! As he is a bestselling author, this strategy has obviously been working well for him.
It doesn’t seem to matter how little or well known a writer you are, similar demons seem to manifest in so many of us. Author, Cynthia Ozick has also confessed her fears in this quote from brainyquote.com:
“I am afraid that the act of writing is so scary and anxiety filled that I never laugh at all. In fact, when people tell me that such and such a scene or story is comical, I tend to gape. I did not intend comedy ever, as far as I know. It’s probably all a mistake. I am essentially a lugubrious writer.”
She explains how she overcomes her fears stating, “I have to talk myself into bravery”. Cynthia acknowledges that she does fear-setting before she writes, with every sentence and sometimes with every syllable.
In Dan Halpern’s publication: Who’s Writing This?: Fifty-five Writers on Humor, Courage, Self-Loathing, and the Creative Process, an outspoken critic, Susan Sontag, outlined her discomforts and admitted: “the writer is me: not my double” making me both Frankenstein and the monster.
I totally get that. For me, writing is my soul mate but can be my nemesis too, it’s love and hate, success and failure, but I’ve come to understand that the good parts always weigh heavier than the bad.
The more I read up on writer anxieties, the more I come to understand that all writers feel this way at times. Knowing that even extremely well-known writers have felt (and still may feel) the same feelings as we do, can bring some comfort to an anxious author.
Actually, it’s not even just authors I should be addressing here as what I am talking about isn’t only something that affects authors or other creative types (although we might be the ones to beat ourselves up a bit more about our work, etc.)
Even composing something as simple as an email or text message to a person we are trying to impress can encourage negative/self-deprecating feelings no doubt to a lesser degree, but maybe enough to bring on those gremlins.
What Can Writers Do
What can writers do about their writing anxieties? I’d be lying if I said a “one size fits all” cure was in existence to alleviate every writer’s anxieties. Using a combination of strategies can go a long way when it comes to steering us poor creatives into a better place.
Know Yourself as a Writer
Be aware of the warning signs and distress triggers before your anxieties build up and take you to an impossible place. e.g. If you know you get anxious near deadline time worrying about whether you’ll make the deadline at all, set yourself a deadline one day before the piece is actually due.
Moreover, get a friend to look at your work with fresh eyes one day before you submit it as well, to ensure that it’s grammatically correct, etc. when it’s finally time to hit the “submit” you’ll hopefully feel less stressed.
Tiredness is not your Friend
I mentioned earlier that writing during your least productive time should be avoided. Rise early to complete a piece if the morning is when you do your best work.
If you know that the last time you submitted your work to client during the evening, you lay awake worrying about it, submit during the day instead, that way if you feel low about it afterward, re-writing or re-reading in the day is more productive than feeling overwhelmed at night when the gremlins can take over.
If you don’t hear from a client, see your work on their website or in their publication when you were expecting it to go in, it does not necessarily mean they hate it.
The client may be busy dealing with office catastrophes or scheduling your work to fit into a different magazine issue etc. Or she/he could be at lunch or on vacation. All manner of things could be occurring, so hold fire on beating yourself up. I know, it’s a cliche, but sometimes, no news really is good news!
Step Away from your PC
We all know that things can get more than frustrating when you’ve been working on something for a long time. Fresh air is your friend, go get some then surprise yourself on your return the Frantzen way, by creating some kick-ass sentences to ignite your confidence and lessen the frustration.
Love and Laugh
Ok, forgive me for rounding this off by getting a little sentimental, but writing can be like love in some ways. The reason why we become consumed by love is because we have an overwhelming desire for someone. We let writing anxiety consume us because we care so much about doing a good job once we’ve had the guts to expose ourselves within the writing arena.
And like the love arena, you feel so bad about your work when you don’t know where you are with the client, the same way as being unsure of how things stand with a loved one exposes vulnerabilities. But being elated in either arena can make everything okay (which is why we love and which is why writers write; love is a worthy risk despite its torture.)
Being a writer is a worthy risk despite its torture too. It takes courage to love and courage to write, be proud of yourself for caring so much, despite the pain.
On a final note, try not to take yourself too seriously, laugh lots and enjoy your craft. Whenever you or any of your writer friends need something to ignite a smile, read this edition of the Pessimist about writing:
It will most likely turn every single coping mechanism I’ve written about on its head, but if it’s humorous anxiety obliteration you’re after don’t hesitate and click on the link.
If you’d like to share any coping strategies that I haven’t mentioned here, be sure to get in touch.
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