Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Thoughts on Perfectionism

Definition of Perfectionism - getting a birthday cake right...

At the moment I am wrestling with trying to rewrite my novel, The Seventh.  And I am finding it hard.  I feel like Jacob, wrestling the angel all night.  Neither of us is winning.  We are just grinding one another into the dust.  Part of the problem is my perfectionism, which is magnified to the Nth degree because this is draft number five.  It really has to be right this time....

I was talking with my counsellor, R, about this the other day.  She writes too, so she understands.  She is also fabulously adept at delivering what I might call, quote 'a slap upside the head with the frying pan of enlightenment' unquote*.

She told me a story about a fellow counsellor, who explained to her that though his sessions with some clients were often difficult, painful, maybe even inconclusive, he always felt they were 'perfect'.  He said they were 'perfect' because they were the unique coming together of people, place, time and emotions; that somehow, what happened in them was what the clients needed at that point in their lives.

R posed the potentially radical question as a result:  what if this is perfect?  Whether it is a counselling session or what comes out on the page after an afternoon sweating blood over a scene that just obstinately refuses to work, dammit!, what if it is just perfect?  Perfect for that time, that place, that me that needs to learn what that moment has to teach me?

Of course, it is just ridiculous to apply this to every occasion.  No one can ever claim that the death of a child in a road accident or from cancer is perfect because of what it teaches the parent.  (Anyone who tells you in this situation that it is a learning experience, and  'God only sends us what He knows we can cope with' wants their block knocking off, IMHO.) But what if one were to apply it on a small scale?  What if, just for once, I could look at that page of dross I have just written, and say, 'maybe, just maybe, right here, right now, that is perfect'?

This reminds me of Baty's First Law of Exuberant Imperfection**, which roughly goes that you have to write a whole lot of shit before you get something remotely useful, and counsels the writer against any kind of judgement upon their work.  Chris Baty is talking about first drafts of course, in connection with the incomparable NaNoWriMo (if you don't know what that is, Google it), but as a recipe for getting going, I can't think of a better one.

Pagans have a very good rule too.  They say, do the spell and then act 'as if'.  As if it had worked.  And it will.

What if I acted 'as if' my work was all wonderful?  What if I decided one day that what I wrote was perfect for that day?

Is it at all possible that just doing that may allow me to write something.  Anything.  Instead of being terminally stuck on this dusty roadside, wrestling with the angel of my perfectionism, and never making any progress?

This all sounds far too absurdly simple to be realistic.  The judgemental voices inside my head scream 'what a load o' rubbish!' with great enthusiasm.  But the thing is, I have a fifth draft to write, and this weekend I am embarking on the delight of my annual writers retreat, taken with my pals from our writers group.  Its the perfect opportunity to play the game of let's pretend.  In this case, 'Let's pretend what I am writing this time round is perfect'...

I'll let you know what happens.....

* (I can't remember whether it was Yasmin Galenorn or Dianne Sylvan who wrote this expression, but its so wonderful, and describes Ros's technique perfectly.  I recommend either writer's work to Pagans, particularly Sylvan's book, The Circle Within, which is pretty much the best book on Wiccan Spirituality that I have ever read.)

** Chris Baty, 'No Plot, No Problem, a Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days', Chronicle Books 2004.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're spot on with the 'as if' rule.

    One day I woke up and decided that I was a professional writer. And it happened.

    If you write fiction as well as you do this, I'm sure you have nothing to worry about :)