Letting Go of Perfectionism the DIY MFA Way

by Sara Letourneau
published in Community

I’ve been a perfectionist almost as long as I’ve been a writer. I strove for good grades in school, agonized over homework for hours, and practiced the heck out of dance routines. The work ethic I developed as a result was driven by my determination to do well, a desire to please my family, and possibly from learning the behavior from those around me (I often see similar habits from my mother). And in some ways, my writing career has benefited from the discipline, critical eye and mind, and focus on results that helped me succeed as a student.

But in other ways, my writing has suffered from it, and so have I.

Those times when I forced myself to write through scenes I was stuck on, just because I had to write first drafts sequentially? Or when I’d belittle myself for my “lack of speed” and slower progress compared to other writers? Or when I recently put aside a manuscript I’d lost the passion and vision for, then beat myself up for two weeks because I was convinced I was a failure? Yep. They’re all instances when perfectionism reared its ugly head, at my expense as well as that of my craft.

Today I’m here to urge you to never, ever be this hard on yourself. It’s not worth the pain, and it’s not the DIY MFA way. I’ll explain the latter shortly, but first…

How Does Perfectionism Affect Writers?

Perfectionism from a writer’s perspective isn’t always the expectation that whatever you write will be perfect as is. Rather, it can manifest in many ways. One writer might be disappointed if his first book doesn’t sell enough copies to hit the bestseller list. Another writer might struggle to stop editing one story and move on to something new. The possible sources—sky-high goals, a lack of confidence, a fear of failure—will differ from person to person. Regardless, if perfectionism affects you and your writing, it probably shows through in one or more of these ways:

  • A narrow definition of success, based on unrealistic goals or the belief that your success depends on the approval of other people
  • A hyperfocus on results and rewards (number of books published, accolades, positive reviews, etc.) over the actual creative process and your growth as a writer
  • The tendency to compare yourself to other writers (published or not) frequently and unfavorably
  • The need to constantly edit your work and delay completion of a draft or writing project
  • Rigidity toward changing your writing process (adopting a new schedule, trying a new technique, etc.), even if those changes could lead to improvements
  • A proneness to viewing all mistakes or setbacks, even minor ones, as failures
  • A habit of punishing yourself harshly for perceived failures, usually through negative internal dialogue or self-questioning

Notice anything in common with these behaviors and beliefs? They hinder your writing more than help it. Any combination will usually lead to counterproductive habits, damaged self-esteem, and a general unhappiness with your craft. And in worst-case scenarios, they can stir up so much fear and anxiety that eventually you become convinced that nothing you write will live up to your or someone else’s standards…and you stop writing altogether.

This has happened to countless writers. It could happen to you, too—but only if you let it. That’s where some of DIY MFA’s most important principles come in.

The Importance of Remembering to “Fail Better”

What I’ve come to appreciate most about Gabriela Pereira’s DIY MFA teachings is that they acknowledge both the ambitious and human sides of a writing career. Yes, it’s good—essential, even—to have goals, strategies, and high standards. (And for perfectionists, our standards are head-spinningly high.) But things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes you won’t meet one of your goals. Sometimes you’ll face rejection from agents, publishers, and other people. Sometimes you’ll need to change your writing routine or take a break from a project because of real-life responsibilities.

And you know what? That’s OK. What matters is how you respond to each situation that triggers your perfectionism. Instead of focusing on how you haven’t met your standards, you learn from the experience and then move on. This is easier said than done, of course. But it’s ultimately the healthiest route for not just you, but for all writers—perfectionistic or not—to take in order to keep writing.

This is what I remembered when, after my recent battle with perfectionism, I found myself re-reading Gabriela’s DIY MFA book. I wasn’t sure why at the time, until I found two nuggets of wisdom that made me think, “Whoa. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing lately.” If you’re a long-time DIY MFA follower, you might recognize these insights as well:

  • Fail Better (Pages 37 to 40): Why does Gabriela devote an entire chapter to coping with failure and rebounding from rejection? Because doing both is vital for your creative health. By facing your fears, finding allies, nurturing a “try again” attitude, and letting go of failure, you’ll grow as a writer and adopt new, more constructive habits that replace the perfectionistic ones.
  • Do Not Compound Failure with Guilt (Pages 7 and 8): When you compound failure with guilt, you’re actually making your circumstances worse. This tendency to blame yourself for mistakes and setbacks manifests in some of the perfectionistic habits mentioned in this post. It also makes it more difficult to adopt the behaviors and mentality that allow you to fail better.

For more wisdom on failure, check out Gabriela’s “How to Make the Most of Failure,” Leanne Sowul’s “Learning Through Failure,” and this DIY MFA Radio podcast on Gabriela’s Mindfulness Manifesto for writers.

How to Let Go of Perfectionism the DIY MFA Way

Once I realized how harmful perfectionism has been for my writing, I began taking more active steps toward letting it go. This acknowledgement will be the first of many steps in making room for a healthier mindset and more fruitful and compassionate habits. If you want to do the same, try any of these suggestions that you think will help you work smarter, fail better, and feel more confident about yourself as a writer. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.

Depersonalize Setbacks and Mistakes

What if you choose not to blame yourself the next time you experience failure with your writing? Instead of thinking “I failed,” think “This failed.” Then review the steps you took to get to this point and see how you can approach the next project differently. By replacing self-blame with objectivity, you’ll learn to accept and move on from mistakes and setbacks more easily—and without the emotional abuse that perfectionism carries.

Ensure Your Goals Are Realistic

Instead of setting goals for what you’d like to accomplish in a week, month, year, etc., look at your schedule and determine how much you can reasonably do within that timetable and at your own speed. If it helps, focus first on smaller, incremental goals that can act as stepping stones toward bigger ones.

Write Out of Sequence

Some perfectionists insist on writing sequentially, or from the opening sentence straight through to The End. But what happens if you get stuck along the way? Skipping to a different section that you’re visualizing or feeling more strongly allows you to keep writing while your subconscious processes how to move past that block. You might be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Let Your Rough Draft Be Rough

Do you frequently revise previously written scenes instead of working on new ones? As proud as you might be of those modified sections, you’re actually delaying completion of the first draft. Instead, let go of the notion that this draft should be “perfect”; and as you think of changes, make a list so you can save them for the revision stage. This will help you formulate a plan for Draft #2 while concentrating on the Draft #1 finish line.

Have a Conversation with Your Inner Critic

If that voice in your head starts criticizing you and your work again, try this journaling technique from writing coach Hillary Rettig. Let the inner critic express its thoughts, then respond with compassionate objectivity so you can rationalize its concerns and (if those concerns are valid) develop a plan to address them. You’ll feel less emotionally battered and more motivated to keep writing afterward.

Practice Flexibility

Change can paralyze perfectionists just as much as failure can. However, it’s an integral part of what we at DIY MFA call “iteration,” the process of figuring out what works for your unique writing process (or each writing project). So if some aspect of your process needs to change— your schedule, your approach to revisions, the environment where you write—think of it as an opportunity. Instead of fighting to keep what isn’t working, ask yourself what you can do to optimize or improve your process and then try it out.

Let’s be honest. Teaching yourself to let go of perfectionism, especially if you’ve resorted to those habits your whole life, is never easy. But don’t be discouraged by how long or bumpy that road might be. If you love writing enough to keep going through the ups and downs, then it will be worth the time and effort to become more mindful of your thoughts, be kinder to yourself, and change the way you approach your writing for the better. Think of it as taking the reins away from perfectionism and into your own hands. There’s real power in that attitude—wouldn’t you agree?

Have you suffered from perfectionism as a writer, either in the past or right now? Which habit(s) have been most damaging to your craft or self-esteem? Have you learned to let go of these habits or adopt new, healthier practices to replace them? If so, how?

Sara Letourneau is a speculative fiction writer and poet in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks copious amounts of tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she was previously a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and a freelance tea reviewer and music journalist. Her poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in Muddy River Poetry Review, Canary, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and elsewhere. Visit Sara at her personal blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.

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