A cautionary tale: It took Truman Capote many years to write his breakthrough bestseller In Cold Blood. After it was published in 1965, Truman was widely quoted as saying that his next novel, which he tentatively called Answered Prayers, would be easy to write in comparison. “It’s all in my head,” he reportedly said.
And that, dear reader and writer, is where most of it remained. Capote was a ruthless perfectionist. His standards were so incredibly high that when he died in l984, he’d spent most of the past 19 years endlessly writing and rewriting Answered Prayers. He missed deadlines, published excerpts, partied, and worked himself into a lather about it, but never finished his novel. Sad, but true.
And probably familiar. We’ve all struggled with taming the ideas in our head and wrestled with putting the stories we’ve envisioned out into the world. We’ve
all faced days when nothing much of value seems to happening on the page. And we’ve all struggled with imperfection — the sense that there’s a huge gap between where we want to take our stories and where they seem to want to go. We reach for the perfect word, the perfect phrase — and find only an echo of what we long to say.
What to do, what to do? When perfectionism rears its frustrating, writer-blocking head, what’s the best way to respond? Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful:
Don’t get it perfect, just get it going: This is advice I first heard from a gaggle of entrepreneurs when writing my start-up action guide, Birthing the Elephant, and we writers can use it, too. In fact, let’s make it a mantra: “Don’t get it perfect, just get it going.” Start your engine. Get some words down on the page and don’t worry about whether they’re clothed in elegant purple prose or sparkle like diamonds: You can always dress them up later (see Quick FIX).
Remember, mining for gold requires panning: Think back to old Westerns and those scenes where prospectors are mining for gold: dipping pans in streams and then sloshing out the dross and hoping for a few gold nuggets. In a way, that’s what writing is like: If we end up at the end of a writing session with a few gold nuggets, then life is
good. Keep this image in mind and just keep panning.
See revision as your friend, not your foe: Take to heart what John McKee, the author of a classic screenwriting guide once said: “Rewriting doesn’t mean drudgery. Rewriting means reimagining, recreating, improvising, and trying all kinds of crazy ideas. That’s rewriting.” When you have this vision of revision in your kit bag, you can simply toss perfectionism out — you really don’t need it.
So let’s all agree to be perfectly imperfect and then fruitfully and happily write on!