Perfectionism and Its Roots

I have a confession to make.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been writing in circles. Grief has a lot to do with it. Losing your father when you weren’t ready and when it seemed he was getting better might have that effect (but he would be like, “Don’t worry about me. You just keep doing what you’re doing.”).

But if I’m honest with myself, it was perfectionism that stalled me.

People often tell me I’m a lot like my father, in looks and in temperament, and nowhere is it more apparent in the things I create. When I make something, it’s not enough for it to be OK. It has to fit my vision exactly how I imagined it, or better, or I should get rid of it and start over.

Since dad worked with his hands, he could see and touch what needed to be fixed or course-corrected. Even music, poetry and drama, things meant to be spoken and heard, your ears can tell you when it doesn’t work. With writing a novel, it’s all in your head, so the thing you’re measuring up against is not a tangible thing you can experience in the real world but something else that you imagine.

The problem with a novel living in your head is that it’s not the only thing living in your head. Between every word I’m thinking about putting in my novel is every novel, short story, song, poem and play I’ve ever enjoyed, and I want all of it to get into my work. Yes, you got that right: I want my book to encompass what I like most about all of my favorite stories and authors, and I want it to do that right now.

You can imagine that the words didn’t exactly flow with all that going on.

So what got me out of my cycle of continuously trying to “fix” my story instead of writing it?

Blog posts and articles about perfectionism didn’t help. None of them addressed the real problems at the heart of my scorched earth approach to my story. The things that compelled me to scrap everything and start over, and over, and over, and over were primarily about fear of sucking, insecurity about my worthiness as an author and self-doubt about my storytelling and writing abilities. I sucked, and I was always going to suck, forever and ever unless I got this right the first time.

Then, between bouts of sabotaging myself, I wondered: why am I doing this? Why am I destroying what I write every time I sit at my desk or open my laptop? Why am I demanding that my very first attempt at long-form fiction be a Carrie or a Bluest Eye? Why am I imposing standards on my novel that I’d never impose on my plays?

And it hit me: because I’m trying to write like someone else and not like myself.

I don’t have this problem when I’m writing plays. In drama, it’s easier for me to get out of my own way and let the characters speak and act for themselves. I don’t worry about comparing myself to Shakespeare, Beckett, Hansberry or even Danai Gurira because my plays about celebrities crawling out of TVs or soft butch pirates falling in love with high femme witches aren’t what they write about. So why did I put this pressure on myself to be Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter, Terry Pratchett, Octavia Butler, Emma Donaghue, and J.R.R. Tolkien all at the same time?

My next revelation: my favorite authors aren’t writing this story. I am.

As much as I love their prose, their storytelling or their worldbuilding, there are things I need that they don’t provide. I have yet to read a novel or short story with a protagonist who shares all my identities. The list of novels with Black Jewish lesbian protagonists is very short, and it gets shorter if I include things like: not singling out this character for death and misery; not making the plot revolve around how hard it is to be Black, Jewish, gay or a woman; and giving her a love interest who adores her, cherishes her and treats her well.

No wonder I couldn’t get anywhere! I was worrying so much about being clever and literary that I lost sight of the most important things I wanted my novel to do. This first foray into long-form fiction is not about knocking people out with the power of my prose. It’s about building a mirror for people like me to see themselves in stories like this. Everything else is secondary.

I can improve my use of language in my next novel.