On Perfectionism (a NaNoWriMo NoNo)
Written by
gayle brandeis
November 2011
Written by
gayle brandeis
November 2011

I used to be a perfectionist.

I dabbled in child modeling when I was young--a fairly disastrous foray; I was not well-suited for the job--too self-conscious, too shy. I was excited, however, when I was offered a gig at a trade show demonstrating System 80 computers. We had a couple of System 80s in my 2nd grade classroom, and I loved feeding the hulking machines little colorful punch cards and playing the simple spelling and math games. I figured all I had to do for this gig was sit at a desk on a raised platform and lose myself in the various blips and beeps of the screen.

The trade show goers had other ideas, however. One man in a business suit asked me what happened if I pushed the wrong button. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Even when asked nicely, I just couldn’t let myself give an incorrect answer. I started crying so hard, my mom had to lower me from the platform and carry me to the car, leaving the System 80 unmanned (unchilded?) the rest of the day.

Thankfully, the years have helped me let go of this need to get everything right. Perfectionism does not serve a writer well. It is antithetical to the creative process, which is by nature messy and chaotic, full of juice that spurts in unexpected directions. Still, sometimes I find that critical part of me rearing its ugly head, telling me that my work will never be good enough or interesting enough or, let’s face it, perfect enough to pass muster with the tongue-clucking gatekeeper inside my brain.

This is why NaNoWriMo is such a gift to writers, especially those of us with perfectionist tendencies. When you write in such a fast and furious way, that gatekeeper simply can’t keep up. With so many words charging through, she has to throw the gate open and step aside.

I am starting the day with 33,542 words under my NaNo belt. I know these are imperfect words. I know they are full of cliches, and unnecessary phrases and strange digressions that derail the forward motion of the story. I know some of my characters are two dimensional, that some of their actions are not quite believable yet. But I’m so glad I’ve written these words. I’m giving myself lots of raw material to work with, a rough draft that I can later shape and hone into the book I envision (or at least an approximation thereof--books are never exactly what we envision, are they? That’s probably a good thing--I find that the writing itself has a much better idea of what it wants to be than I do). Some of my sentences may make me cringe, but I try to take a deep breath and keep moving forward, knowing I can always change the text later. As I tell my students, it’s much easier to craft something beautiful out of a pile of garbage than it is to build something amazing out of thin air. And while the final novel may never be as perfect as I want it to be--and I admit, I still revise my published books when I read from them!--I’ll try my hardest to make it a whole, living, breathing creature unto itself.

I recently saw a t-shirt in a catalog that said, beneath a drawing of a typewriter, “Don’t get it right, get it written.” This could easily be the catch phrase for NaNoWriMo. Right now, imperfection is what is right--how freeing is that?! I wish you swift fingers and quiet critical minds as you get your gloriously imperfect novels written. Please let me know how it’s going!

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  • Nichole L. Reber

    Poignant post, Gayle. I can particularly relate to consciously eschewing perfectionism. Growing up, my parents kept an immaculate house. I found myself doing that when I finally lived on my own. That very process hindered my mental ability to let go and write, so I made a decision to be a little looser about housecleaning (and other things). A few years later a grad school professor taught blind composition in one of my classes. That helped me stop planning for perfection whilst in the earliest phases of writing. Both moments sent my happiness and productivity up as a writer.

    Glad you mentioned this during NaNoWriMo when people easily get bogged down with perfectionism.

    Imperfectly yours,

    Nichole L. Reber 


  • gayle brandeis

    Thanks so much, everyone! Good luck breaking free, Bridget and Lauren (Lauren, I do hope you'll be able to do your own NaNoWriMo when you're on your break from school!) Thank you for sharing your experience, Kathy--so fascinating and so helpful! xoxo

  • Kathy Bowman

    That's fun. I want to share a sort of quirky experience that I had that was hugely helpful. When I was 19, I developed neurological problems (no, I'm not going to suggest you hurt your brain, don't worry!) that lead to anywhere from 3 to at times 150+ seizures a day. I went from having an extraordinary concentration span and a visual-eidetic memory to a lot less. At one point, I might only have 15 minutes of concentration at a time, despite preliminary brain surgeries, rather intense medication trials, and on. (This story is not going where you think.) Eventually things improved enough to allow me to go back to work after five years... and what I learned during that time and afterward was that I "didn't need to know where I was going to get there." Essentially, I was able to learn how to learn - quite differently - all over again. And further - as one of the few people not afraid of a pen in the place where I worked - I discovered that not only could I transfer from one style of working to another - I could help other people do so. In short... we are all trainable. And clinging to perfectionism and intensity (you shoulda known me when!) is only one of the many ways to get where you need to go. So... what I say is... Have hope. Draw pictures. Tell stories to your answering machine. Use the second rule of botany if you get stuck! (The second rule is "if you don't know what it is, you get to make it up.") Consult your inner editor... later.

  • Bridget Kelley-Lossada

    Thanks for that awesome message! :)  I have been trying to free myself from perfectionism for the last five years...