A few years ago, during an afternoon lull in the workday I lounged at the computer tinkering with one of my stories. Banks are notoriously slow during summer months, and staying awake is important. A coworker, Elizabeth, noticed my tapping. She leaned back in her swivel chair to get a view of my interest. “How many stories have you written?” she asked.
My mind jumped to the numbers game: Written, like, ever? Abruptly, I wanted to be Midas. I wanted to parade my myriad perfections across her desk in pompous fanfare. However, I was simultaneously seized by profound fear that nothing I’d written would ever be good enough; it would never be perfect. I inhaled a deep breath of the office air conditioning. “Well,” I said, “do you mean how many have I completed or how many am I working on?”
Working on, in that context, was a clever euphemism for started and got about a page in before abandoning. But she didn’t need to know that. If she’d said, completed I probably would have lied anyway. Still, it was a relief when she said “working on.”
“Gosh, I don’t know.” A pregnant pause was needed to illustrate the immense calculation of fabulous stories my pen had etched. “Probably seventy-five to a hundred.”
“Wow,” she said. “That’s a lot. I wish I could do that, but nothing I’d write would be any good.”
I knew exactly how she felt. I turned away and began typing to make it appear that I was furiously constructing the next bestseller. Meanwhile, what I was actually doing was scrolling through a story I’d started three years previously. And after all that time, I had exactly one and a half pages completed. I’d fixed grammar and changed the characters name about seven times. Did that count for anything? I mumbled audibly enough for her to ascertain that the characters in my head were manifesting themselves and demanding a seven book series. “Seven is the number of perfection,” they intoned.
After lunch Elizabeth returned to her desk and said she’d love to see something that I’d written. “Maybe you can show me the one you’re working on now.”
My worst fear: someone would see my wholly imperfect writing and they would know I was a fraud. I choked on my pomposity. “Er—I don’t normally like to show anything that’s incomplete,” I told her.
“Then you’ll show me when it’s finished?”
“Definitely.” So between fifteen years and eternity I should have it wrapped up, I could have said. I’d always enjoyed writing, but I enjoyed writing five paragraphs or a snippy zinger of dialogue and then forsaking it in the deep crypt-like recesses of file folders on my laptop. How could I show the world something so pathetic?
“I don’t know how you do it,” she said. “I’ve heard people say that sometimes we set our standards so high it actually limits us from being effective because we want everything we do to be perfect. It’s great that you don’t have that problem. You just let the words flow.”
There that word was again: perfect. Elizabeth had spoken in sincerity, but it could have as easily been satirical commentary. I examined the blinking cursor on my screen. The page was blank. Maybe I could write a poem about a blinking cursor. But I probably wouldn’t finish that either. Better yet, I could write a poem about procrastination, and it would only have a title. So post-modern! No, I was sure someone had beaten me to it. If I considered myself a writer, why didn’t I have anything to show for it? Something needed to change. But what was the problem? It was obvious. I was terrified that someone might think it wasn’t good enough. That it wasn’t perfect.
If I ever wanted to make something worthwhile out of my writer-life aspirations, I’d have to capitulate to imperfection. I turned the monitor off and began to type. If I couldn’t see the words, I wouldn’t be tempted to fix them. I resolved that if I wrote the crappiest story on earth, it was going to be the finished crappiest story on earth. No ifs, ands, or hard-drive failures.
After an hour, I’d written almost 1200 terrible words of prose and I could not have been more ecstatic. The story was finished and my understanding had changed.
To be a writer means that you write. If I continued to write daily, excusing the catastrophic mess on the page, then I was a writer and I had evidence to show for it. No where did it ever say that what I wrote had to be perfect. Heck, that’s what revision’s for.
Are you limited by your pursuit of perfection? What ways can you give up control and get writing?