Perfectionism is self-defeating at both keyboards
Last week, we talked about letting go of things that aren’t serving us well. This week, we’ll flip that coin over: hanging on to certain things rather than giving up.
This is the conundrum of my life. I hang on to the wrong things, like rubber bands and regret, and let other more significant things just sail away on the S.S. Neglect. Writing projects are always on board that ship and lost to the seas of memory, until I randomly rediscover them on my computer. There they are — abandoned novels, screenplays, non-fiction books. And I think, “Oh yeah — I was gonna write that.”
I’m a great beginner of things. I’m a not a great finisher. Probably because I struggle with all the stuff in between. I’ll know where the story’s going. Sometimes I’ll have it all completely worked out in my head. Getting it from my head, through my fingers and tapping out onto the keyboard is another story.
Ha. “Another story.”
Me so funny.
In the beginning, I’ll be bursting with enthusiasm about my latest writing project. Obsessing about it. Researching it. Making little notes and Post-Its. Daydreaming about phrases, descriptions and dialogue. I’ll sit down and tear into the story, and then it happens: The snag. How do I get Jane from point A to point B, with that big ole crevasse in the middle? Will she fly? Jump? Throw a rope across? Turn left? What if there are bears on the left? Bears, wait, what? How did bears get into this story?
Will she marry the bear trapper???
Let’s start over.
And there you have the cycle of my (non-column) writing projects. I smack up against a problem I’m unable to solve, and go back to the beginning and start over, because clearly I screwed something up along the way. I need to find it, and fix it.
And then I fix it again. And again. And again, until, eventually, I’ve written my way out of the story I set out to write, and no longer have any idea what I’m writing about anymore.
This is where enthusiasm, creativity and wild, wanton inspiration go to die, boys and girls.
This pattern of obsessive-compulsive self-defeat is not exclusive to writing. I do the same thing with music. Thirteen years of piano lessons, and even a quarter at UC Davis with Lois Brandwynne (who accepted me only because I played Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude so badly that she felt sorry for me), and there are still very few piano pieces I can play perfectly from start to finish. “Perfectly” being the key word. For me, when it comes to writing and music, anything less than perfect is failure. Humiliation. Remove it from my presence — it disgusts me.
Must. Start. Over.
When I was taking piano lessons as a child, I drove my piano teacher nuts because I refused to play through the mistakes. I had to start over.
Writing? Same problem. And, oddly enough, my perfectionism is reinforced by writing columns. A column is so short, I can zoom from Point A to Point B, and leap the crevasse in one stride. I decide where I’m going before I start, I analyze the course, set my eyes on the target, and then… GO. I can achieve perfection in 1,000 words or less (in my own mind, anyway). I’ve experienced that satisfaction in knowing that I can’t possibly do something any better than that. That satisfaction is crack. I must have it. I lust after it every time I sit down at the keyboard.
But that’s a column. Let’s say it’s a novel. I begin just like I would a column: Point B, baby — there it is. GO! And then… bam. At the bottom of the crevasse. Again.
I was explaining this to local author and fellow iPinion contributor Spring Warren one day over lunch recently, and she told me something that shattered all my beliefs about the writing process: many novel writers (herself included) just keep going. They hit the rough patch and keep on writing. They can clean it all up when they’ve finished the book. And, she added, they don’t keep going back and rewriting the first chapter over and over again until it’s perfect. They just move on to the next one.
Spring advised me to do the same — just keep going, and don’t look back — and I could feel my anxiety simmering just thinking about that. Not only was this “just keep writing” notion an epiphany, I recognized the obvious parallel between the piano keyboard and the computer keyboard. I must continue through the “mistake” or there’s no hope of finishing, let alone mastery. My piano teacher tried to convince me of this when I was 11, and I wasn’t buying it. Forty-plus years later, I recognize that my own perfectionism is often the very thing that prevents me from succeeding
Spring enlightened me to another thing I hadn’t considered before. Writing is all about mindset; mode, if you will. When I’m in Columnist Mode, my mind is geared up for a short, focused, powerful burst. It’s a sprint. In Screenwriting Mode, I’m writing from a completely different place in my brain — I’m putting sounds, images and movement into words and directions. It flows. When I’m in Reporter Mode, I’m locked in to getting all the facts down logically, correctly and economically. It’s staccato.
But Novelist Mode? What the heck is that? You mean… it’s not just Sequential Columnist Mode? Or Stretched Out Columnist Mode? You mean… there’s a whole ‘nuther unknown place in my head from which to write?
Wow. It’s like discovering a room in your house that you’ve never entered. I need to get in there and explore — just write through the mistakes. Just write it. But first, I think I’ll sit myself down and play all the way through Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. Warts and all. Just for practice.