Are We Being Too Hard on Ourselves?

Recently I met up with my writing buddy Sally, to talk about our progress (or lack of it) and to set short and long-term writing goals.

This might sound super-professional and organised, but don’t be deceived: it’s just us saying what we hope to do in the next few weeks and months (Oh, and I even wrote it down this time!).

We had a bit of a moan too, of course, about how difficult this writing palaver can be.

It’s hard to get published, to promote your book, to earn any money, to cope with (well-meaning?) people’s expectations and opinions.

And that got us thinking: where’s the fun gone? We realised we’re not enjoying our writing as much as we used to. We need to lighten up and write for pleasure, without the spectre of ‘will this be published/paid for/accepted/any good?’ hanging over us.

Perhaps, we thought, we’re being too hard on ourselves.

I can’t speak for Sally but I know that I’m something of a perfectionist and I’m not saying that in a boastful way because, actually, that’s Not Good for a writer.

It means I procrastinate and take forever to write anything (I’m continually tweaking and changing and I’ll only consider something ‘finished’ when I’ve spent hours on it – and probably much longer than I need to).

There’s a great quote (by someone) which is the mantra I would love to be able to live by: ‘Don’t get it right, get it written!‘ In other words, just get it down and then you can tinker with it (if you must!). I have a terrible tendency to want to polish and perfect each sentence before I allow myself to move on.

It means I don’t write as much as I want to. It means that attempting anything longer than a short story feels like a much bigger task than it might seem to someone who isn’t a perfectionist. It means I procrastinate because I’m waiting for the ‘perfect’ moment to start and because I know that whatever it is, is going to take a while and be hard work.

I used to work with a capable young lad called Jason who, when he was given a task to do (say, to write a press release), would just launch into it, with gusto and enthusiasm and get it done in the quickest time possible. First draft, no revisions and there! It was done! He’d hand it in – good enough, if not perfect – and wouldn’t even think about it again. On to the next thing! Oh, how I envied him (but I was also quite cross, in an illogical sort of a way. Why didn’t he agonise over it, like me? How could he possibly have done it ‘properly’ if he’d done it that fast?).

If you have perfectionist tendencies too, then I’ve looked up some tips to help us. If you’re a Jason-type, then lucky you – you can skip this bit!

1. Apparently, we perfectionists place pressure on ourselves because we’re focussed on the end result, the (often unachievable) goal, the place we want to get to.

We need to enjoy the process (and the fact that we’ll be learning along the way). I suppose this could translate into: enjoy writing that short story, regardless of whether it will be placed in a competition or accepted by a magazine editor. And if you’re writing a novel, recognise that, even if it’s never published, you’ll have learned so much just from the act of writing it, the next one will be even better.

2. I focus on what’s gone wrong, rather than what went well. You too? But one mistake doesn’t equal failure! If 95% of something has gone well, we should be spending 95% of our time focussing on that, rather than on the tiny part that wasn’t quite as it should have been.

3. Perfectionism can lead to a fear of failure, which means you avoid taking risks. It can create mental paralysis. This has definitely happened to me: I’ve had ideas for articles but not pitched them because a) they’re probably stupid and will be rejected or b) what if they are accepted and then I can’t write them?

4. Waiting for that ‘perfect moment’ to start to write, can also mean a perfectionist is a procrastinator. A perfectionist’s work is never done! It’s important to set time limits (short term – eg: an hour for this blog post – and long term – first draft of the novel to be finished by Christmas). Otherwise, you’ll never finish what you start.

5. We perfectionists need to be kinder to ourselves and not so self-critical. When I was walking the dog today I left her (special!) collapsible water bowl on a path. I went back but of course, it was gone. And my head was full of ‘How could you be so stupid?’

Here are some lovely phrases for all us perfectionists to practise and say to ourselves, every day (perhaps look in the mirror while you say them, wink and blow yourself a kiss?)

“No-one’s perfect!”
“We all make mistakes.”
“I can only do my best.”
“Making a mistake doesn’t make me stupid – it just makes me human.”
“Everyone has a bad day sometimes.”
“I can’t please everyone.”
“Not everyone is going to like me and that’s fine…”

6. Embrace ‘Good Enough’! Good enough is much better than striving forever for perfection.

7. Keep away from ‘toxic friends’ or those who want to put you down or criticise (so, if you belong to a writers’ group that makes you feel disheartened and useless, why are you going there?). Instead, surround yourself with people who lift you up and make you feel good.

8. Use social media wisely (ie: limit your time on it – or have a complete digital detox, if it’s getting too much). No-one’s life is as perfect as it can appear on Facebook and if you’re feeling a little down about your own writing, reading everyone’s ecstatic tweets about how they’ve sold a story, got an agent or won a writing competition, can make you feel even worse.

And in addition, there are often posts and tweets along the lines of ‘You SHOULD BE WRITING!’ and ‘It’s National Writing Day – what have you written today?’ that can make you feel ‘lacking’.

Alex Gazzola nails this in his blog post ‘Stop Telling Writers That They Should Be Writing!’ – definitely worth a read.

Ooh, the little perfectionist in me just said ‘8? Wouldn’t 10 be a better, round number of tips?’ But I say to that little P, ‘No, mate. 8 is good enough.’

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11 Responses to Are We Being Too Hard on Ourselves?

  1. Alex Gazzola says:

    Exactly – we sometimes all have bad days, we sometimes all have exceptional days, but mostly we have solid 8-out-of-10 days – and that is usually just fine. Very fine, in fact. And if you want to have a day in your pants watching Wimbledon and mucking about on social media (raises hand) … ALSO VERY FINE!!! 🙂

    • I am imagining you in your pants now, in front of the tele’…! Whoops! Erase that thought from my mind. But yes, it’s good to know not everyone is beavering away at their WIP. When you look at social media, it’s full of ‘That’s my third novel finished! Hurrah!’ and ‘Got up at 5am and wrote 20,000 words before breakfast’ which is all very demoralising, imo!

      • Alex Gazzola says:

        So sorry … I’m sure I can recommend a trauma counsellor in your area ….
        But seriously yes, I’m sure these writers mostly intend to be encouraging (“if I can do it so can you!”) and I don’t want to begrudge them their ‘go me!’ moment on social, but the cumulative effect of reading these, especially if you’re in a slightly fragile state, can be quite demoralising if you’re going through a non-productive period.

      • Couldn’t have put it better myself! Have you got dressed now?

  2. Linda Lewis says:

    Great post as always. Have fun. Enjoy. That’s what life, even a writing life, needs to be about.

  3. pennywrite says:

    Engaging post! I took to NaNoWriMo to rid myself of that darn’ Inner Editor (always seemingly on duty!) What I like best is to try out as much rubbish as I please until the Final Edit, but then really to get things righter than right. If possible.

    • Thanks for your comment, Penny. I agree, NaNo is great for beating the inner editor because there just isn’t time to take any notice of him (note I’ve decided he’s male!).

  4. Carrie says:

    This is so me, Helen. Thanks for sharing! I’m going to go give myself a mental talking to right now 😉

    • thanks, Carrie – glad it was useful! It’s made me think (a lot!) about how hard I am on myself and how much I try to be a ‘people pleaser’ (I think that’s a ‘girl thing’!). I’m going to try to lighten up a bit and think ‘what would I say to a friend in this situation?’ instead of beating myself up about things!

  5. juliathorley says:

    Sorry I mentioned National Writing Day! 🙂

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