Perfectionism - I
Thanks to everyone for your comments and kind words on my last column, where I wrote about Felix, my four-legged writing partner who passed away recently. I was moved by the many stories of your writing partners, past and present, and how they help (or not) with the writing. They do give a lot of love and companionship for living lives that are way too short.
So I think you will understand when I tell you that over the winter break, I signed up for the Academic Writing Club; I knew that with the holidays and with taking care of my senior pooch, I might need some external support to keep my writing going. Plus, I wanted to check out the Academic Writing Club because I had heard many good things about it, but I didn’t want to recommend it without working through it myself. Well, I was very impressed with the online program and I’ll be writing about it more in depth in the future. Also, if you read my last column, you’ll also know that even with the additional support, I didn’t get much writing done. Anyone who has taken care of a senior pooch, an ailing spouse, a sick child, an elderly parent, or any friend or family member when in need, has realized that at times, writing just doesn’t happen. I wouldn’t have it any other way. My last few months with Felix were incredibly precious and I wouldn’t have missed a moment of taking care of him. For those of you who have found yourselves in similar situations, I am sure you will agree.
While I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have liked, I did make good use of the resources and recommendations provided by the Academic Writing Club. My group’s coach sent out a link to a YouTube video by Ira Glass, the host of National Public Radio’s This American Life. Ira spoke to newcomers to the radio business. He made this interesting statement that people get into the radio business because they have good taste. That is, they can tell when something is good and when something is not. He also said that when we are starting out in anything, our ability and our taste do not align. Our taste is much, much better than our ability, and he provided some humorous examples of his early work to illustrate his point. He also added to be persistent. He encouraged listeners by saying that the only way to get our abilities to match our taste is to accept that our abilities are not where we want them to be and to keep working, "don’t give up!"
Well, after laughing over his YouTube video, I immediately thought of the problems with perfectionism. When I have worked with doctoral students, I have found that perfectionism rivals procrastination for the most popular form of writer’s block (in a very unscientific observational study). As I think about this, it is not all that surprising. To get accepted into a doctoral program, you pretty much have to have "academic overachiever" written in invisible ink on your forehead. And this may or may not come as a shock, but some of us have special filters on our retina and we can read these signs a mile away. All the students who walked into my dissertation writing seminar had this moniker written on their foreheads. Then, as a doctoral student, you spend your time reading the best of the best. So if you had good taste entering your program, it has only gotten better, which can be both a blessing and curse.
The result? Your taste is better than your writing. You could probably pull this off with course-length papers, but then as you started writing master’s theses and doctoral dissertations, perfectionism became more and more of a burden. If you are like me, you would have agonized over the perfect first sentence and first paragraph, which would be okay -- but in my whole time in graduate school I never had a paragraph-long assignment. In addition, each time I worked on a long paper over multiple writing sessions, I opened my document and I started rewriting at the beginning and then adding new writing at the end. What happened was that my first page was terrific, the next few pages were okay, and the final pages, well, they stunk. Why? Because I spent so much time perfecting what I had written, I never had the chance to spend the necessary rewriting time to make the final pages even adequate.
But all is not lost. In Professors as Writers, Robert Boice talks about the initial disadvantages and then the later advantages of perfectionism: "Perfectionism blocks when it occurs too early in the writing process, while the writer is preparing or still generating preliminary drafts. Perfectionism, with some limits, works to advantage in reading the last draft and in proofreading." That’s the crux of the biscuit. Perfectionism hinders getting that all important first draft down on the page. As a result you do not have the adequate time to leverage those tendencies to your advantage. We need to get that all important first draft down on the page so that we can transform what Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft” into “good second drafts and terrific third drafts” (Bird by Bird). So, one challenge is shutting off your internal critic so that you can get the first draft down on the page (or up on the screen) and then you can employ all your good taste to make it quite good.
I also like what Eviatar Zerubavel says about perfectionism and first drafts. He encourages us to “accept the fact that [the first drafts] will most likely end up looking far from perfect. (Not that anybody else’s first draft looks any better, as evident from the rather crude sketched ‘studies’ produced by even the most famous artists at the early stages of working on their great masterpieces.)” (The Clockwork Muse).
Everyone has to turn off his or her perfectionistic tendencies in order to get the writing or picture done. Quite simply, perfectionism stifles creativity. Most everyone has to do the version of what I call a crummy first draft or an informal sketch to finish a good piece of writing or art. When I was in Sao Paulo, a friend of mine was an incredible painter and she hosted a bunch of us on Monday afternoons where she taught us to paint. Learning to paint was incredibly fun. And, I learned a lot of lessons about turning off my internal critic while painting a still life of two lemons resting on two large tropical leaves. True, true, they did look like lemons, mostly, but from the right angle the large tropical leaves took on the shape of wings and my lemons could look like yellow amorphous angels. But I reiterate: I had fun.
While discussing one of her paintings, my friend told me that she was hesitant to add bright red tulips to the foreground of her painting that had a wonderful red barn in the background and a green meadow in the middle ground. She had never painted a bed of tulips before and she found the experience daunting. I had just been to a museum the day before where I saw sketches of a famous Brazilian artist on the wall — they were the painter’s version of “prewriting” and it was very easy to link the sketches to various sections of the final masterpiece. So, I suggested to my friend that she get out a blank canvas and practice painting tulips. She could throw out the practice canvas later; it was purely prewriting. That idea resonated with her and she gave it a try. All to make the point that most every artist or writer puts something down on the canvas or page that they do not expect to be the final version. But, if they tried to put the final version down the first time, they would fail. Or more commonly, they would never try. Why? Because their good taste would trump their ability and they would never see one of their paintings on the wall of a museum or see their writing bound between two leather covers with their name and dissertation topic in gold lettering on the spine.
So if any of these experiences resonate with you, please recognize that you have good taste. The first draft of what you put down on the page probably won’t live up to that good taste. Your second and third drafts will get closer, but they may not live up to it either, at least not yet. Nonetheless chances are that after working through your second and third drafts, and maybe more drafts, you will have written something that is good enough and can make you proud.
Over the years, I have identified some specific interventions that seem to work with those who struggle with perfectionism. I wish I could say that just reading and knowing these solutions will solve all your problems; I can’t. Perfectionism is a trait and a habit that you built up over the years and it will take some time, not years, but some dedicated time to learn to turn off your internal critic and to be able to lay down that initial first draft without the anxiety of perfecting while writing. There are a few ways that I have seen perfectionism manifested and if you experience any of these, you will immediately recognize them and you can employ the intervention to overcome them.
In my next column, I will discuss some of the ways that I have seen perfectionism manifested. I will also suggest some concrete examples to address perfectionism. As a preview for my next column, the two prewriting exercises that I have seen perfectionists stumble over are deciding on a dissertation topic and concerns over missing that “must-read” article to the extent that you read at the expense of writing. In the writing stage, I have seen perfectionism hold writers back from writing a complete first draft because they take too much time writing a perfect introductory paragraph and while writing they search for the perfect word. In the rewriting stage, the issue is when to stop revising. A deadline usually helps, but with some longer projects and often with the dissertation, the deadline is internally versus externally set. Remedies include working with a writing partner or group, setting deadlines (often agreeing on deadline with writing partners), and using placeholders instead of perfect introductions or words.
Until next time, be well. As always, I look forward to your comments, suggestions, or questions.