A Laboriously Extended Metaphor on Perfectionism and Self-Doubt

I’m a perfectionist. As one of my friends likes to joke, “I’m working on my perfectionism.”

No one holds me to as high a standard as I hold myself.  I don’t see it as bad or good.  Sometimes perfectionism is useful. Other times, it can be stultifying.

I’ve made friends with my inner editor, and we have made a few deals. She’s allowed full reign when I need her discerning eye for excellence. In return, she keeps quiet when that editorial voice can cause harm.

The creative process for me is a cycle of discernment and free-flowing movement. It is a two step that I still haven’t mastered.  My favorite metaphor for it is planting a vegetable garden.

Sorting and selecting seeds

Seeds travel well. They can be stored in a cool dry place until we want them. They are hearty. They can take a little knocking around. That’s the nature of seeds.   This is how I see my piles of story ideas. They are just seeds.

Idea selection and honing is a stage at which my inner editor is given one vote among many.

She doesn’t get to overrule the excited voice of my inner artist who really wants to play with a story idea, but she is allowed to hone and shape the idea. She’s allowed to turn it around in her hands and decide how we should plan the outline, what the conflict should be, where the potential holes are.   There’s room for perfectionism in preparation.

It should be noted that at this phase, I’m also happy to talk with others about my idea. I can bounce concepts around and play with the seeds. They are hearty and small. They can take it.

Germinating in the Greenhouse

When the tiny baby sprout first surges from the protective shell of the seed. When it first thrusts its emerald head above the lip of the soil. This is when care, temperature, light and water are crucial. This is when the idea needs gentleness.

Too much criticism from inside my mind or from other people at this phase can be crippling. There are so many writing exercises designed specifically to push writers past the voice of the inner editor and into this wild territory of new growth.

This is when I’m barely able to talk about my book. This is when they only way you’ll know I’m writing something new is in my isolation, and silence. I’m intense in the greenhouse. I’m working my way through the soil of the blank page and I’m tending my idea so it can be strong enough to stand on its own.

In some ways, all baby sprouts look the same in this phase. They are blobs of baby plant. They have a single stem, a single leaf, a bright green tone to soak up sunlight.   If I think too critically about my idea, I’ll find someone else who has written my book, and probably done a better job if it. I’ll kill the idea with doubt.

This is when my inner editor has agreed to stay silent. She’s allowed to observe and take notes, but that’s it.  It’s also when I don’t let anyone else near my idea.

Transplanting the sprouts

Eventually, the sprout starts to look like what it is. The leaves elongate or grow jagged edges, the stem becomes a stalk or a vine.  The roots are deep enough and sturdy enough to withstand transplantation.  The plant is leaving the greenhouse and going to have to deal with weather and the footsteps of the careless in the garden.

When I’m writing, this is when a draft is ready for beta readers. This is when I trust that my idea has grown enough that it can take the constructive criticism of other people. I feel like enough of what I need to put into it is there.  My inner editor gets a pass at the work before it goes out into the world. She judges its readiness, she figures out what questions to ask readers to answer.

Pulling weeds

The inner editor is crucial in reading and listening to feedback. Not all feedback is perfect. Sometimes it’s a guideline that something needs to change, but it’s not always the story itself that has to move.  The inner editor understands the goal of the idea and the point of the story better than the readers, and she actually edits the constructive criticism in order to use it to it’s best intent.

To continue the garden metaphor, my inner editor is the one who can tell the difference between weeds and intentional plantings. She’s the one who determines what goes and stays in the garden rows.

This, again, is a private process.  I have opened the work up for readers, and now I’m closed to further commentary. I have to make it mine again. I have to keep it close.  Again, too much editing can hurt the work at this point. (I might actually pull up a veggie instead of a weed!)

Harvesting the fruits

The goal of this effort is to have a finished product.  I’m hoping to have too many zucchini in my garden, and to be able to give away some tomatoes.  Again, you see that careful discernment is necessary. Which are ripe?  Which should hang on the vine for a day or two more?

In my notes, I called my final editing pass of Salvagedthe harvest” because I felt like I was finally getting to the point where I had something tangible to show for all of this growth and effort.

This is when my inner editor gets to shine. Her perfectionism gets to gleam and prance. I really am perfecting my work, and she gets to take over. I trust her to do her job well, because that’s the only way she does anything.   I might talk about the work more at this phase, but it’s not likely I’ll let anyone see it. She’s really busy working on it.

English: The Produce, Osmotherley Show

English: The Produce, Osmotherley Show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hey! Don’t Knock The Free Zucchini!

Once I’ve plucked the food from the vine, and once I’ve decided I need to give away the stuff I cannot cook or freeze, it’s time for the inner editor to let go again.  She gets to take a break. Take a nap. Put her feet up.

I’m at this phase now with Salvaged. It’s done.  I feel like it’s finished. I’ve finally done the story justice.  If I open the door back up to drafting and critique, then I won’t feel ready to move on to the next phase, I’ll be crippled with self-doubt. My inner perfectionist – who has already signed off on this work –  gets worried and starts to re-assess every word choice and every comma.

When people offer to read my work at this phase, I cringe.  When they tell me about classes I could take for editorial processes, I smile and nod and politely turn away.  No. Not for this book.  Suggesting that my self-doubt is actually further need for improvement is not helpful. I know they mean well, but honestly, it’s a tiny bit cruel.

In a way, it’s like taking a basket of free tomatoes from my garden and saying “Are these really ripe enough? Is that one bruised?”

Entering the Produce at the Fair

When I edit Salvaged again it will be at the recommendation of people who work in the publishing industry.  I know it would need a professional editorial pass before publication, which means that this book has at least one more draft and revision to go.  I’m not going to undertake that lightly.

The phase I’m at right now is to query for agents.  I am putting my prize tomatoes and my homemade jam to the test. It is in the county fair contest for judges to evaluate.  I have to believe in my work enough to put it out on the table to be judged.

And I’m damned sure allowed to wring my hands and watch for facial expressions when they taste the jam.  Self-doubt is a natural part of putting myself and my work out into the world.

So far, I have a participation ribbon. Let’s see if I can’t get Best in Show.

2 thoughts on “A Laboriously Extended Metaphor on Perfectionism and Self-Doubt

  1. Pingback: Masks Unmasked | A.K. Anderson

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