Perfectionism and the Implosion of my Second Story

I mentioned earlier that my primary motivation for starting this blog was to get better at finishing things. I’ve been working on identifying particular things that trip me up, and first up for discussion is Perfectionism.

Okay, that sounds like a humblebrag, or job interview bullshit—my biggest weakness is I care too much—but holding yourself to an impossible standard can make actually finishing something, well, impossible.

Ira Glass has a great take on this, which I’ll paraphrase for brevity (but read the whole thing): the taste of beginning creators can exceed their ability to such an extent that everything they produce is disappointing, and they just give up.

I can definitely relate—when it comes to writing.  [1]

So here’s what happened to the second story I wrote after getting into Stonecoast: I showed it to a friend and classmate who happened to be an editor for an online magazine. Not pitching it, just, here’s the kind of stuff I like to write, how about you? And even though it wasn’t a perfect fit for her market, she offered to buy it on the spot. [2]

And I turned her down.

Remember, this was just my second story and would have been my first professional sale. Why would I say no?

Pause for a second while I explain a bit about how the Stonecoast low-residency creative writing program works:

Students and faculty only meet for ten days at the beginning of each semester. (This is the “residency” part of the low-residency program.) There are workshops and panels, lectures and readings, and a lot of catching up with old friends and making new ones. It’s a good time. Workshops are where you bring your polished pieces to discuss in detail with a dozen other students and a faculty member or two. The rest of the semester you spend doing one-on-one work with your assigned mentor via email and the occasional phone call.

Pause for another second while I have an epiphany:

Perfectionism isn’t really the right label for this particular stumbling block—it’s Ego. I didn’t actually realize that until I started writing this blog post, so that’s minor victory, I guess.

Hang on. This is about to get embarrassing.

So during my first semester, I worked on two stories with my mentor: a quickie little flash piece and this other thing, which I brought to a workshop at my next residency. And my expectation was (my cheeks are literally red as I write this) that this story would be so well received that someone would offer to publish it.

Now that’s crazy, because 1) that’s not how workshops work, 2) no one in the room was in a position to publish anything, 3) come on. [3]

So later, when my editor friend did offer to publish it, rather than explode with gratitude, I just took it in stride because that was literally the result I’d been expecting, even though that was impossible.

Ugh. It gets worse.

My story got pretty good feedback in the workshop. One person didn’t care for it all, but most thought it worked well. The two faculty members leading the workshop suggested some markets to submit to. Consensus: I had a salable short story on my hands. But the feedback convinced me that it wasn’t, in its current state, good enough to win a Hugo award.

If you’re not doing a spit-take right now, that may be because you don’t know that the Hugos are science fiction fandom’s equivalent of the Oscars.

I didn’t sell my story to my editor friend because (again, literally bright red) I was holding out for a fucking Hugo.

So what happened to that story? It’s been collecting rust on my hard drive for the past five years. Five years. I never went back and revised it. How could I with that kind of weight on it?

Ira Glass has a prescription for getting past this stumbling block: “Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”

That’s good, and something I’m working on with this blog, but I think it’s also possible to attack the problem from the other end. So my prescription to myself is: let go of your ego. Make it as good as you can, then let it go.

Now that I’ve confessed all this, you have my permission, nay, my encouragement, to harass me into finishing that story. It’s good. You’ll want to read it. And if you run into me in real life (after, say, December 1), and I haven’t submitted a revised version to at least one pro market, I owe you a beer.

1. Theatre is a different story. First, it’s a collaborative medium; you have to relinquish some measure of control to participate at all. Second, the  implacability of the production calendar forces you to be ruthless with your expectations; anything that can’t be ready by opening night has to go; there are no extensions. Third, my theatrical ego is nigh unstoppable.

2. She didn’t really offer to buy it on the spot, she invited me to submit, but 1) that doesn’t make for as punchy a story, and 2) I just assumed at the time that the invitation to submit was an offer to buy. In retrospect, I was probably a little ahead of myself.

3. A surprising number of people come into workshops with exactly that attitude—that they’re there to get a thumbs up (or thumbs down) on their work. But that’s not what workshops are for. They’re not even about improving the submitted story so much as giving you an opportunity to improve as a writer. That’s why you’re expected to critique everyone else’s work as well. If you’re not learning as much or more from giving and hearing feedback on everyone else’s story, you’re doing workshops wrong. (This topic really deserves its own post.)

2 thoughts on “Perfectionism and the Implosion of my Second Story

  1. I literally laughed out loud several times. The dog at my feet was a bit startled at first, but by the third LOL she understood that I’m not laughing at her.

    You’ll want to know which parts.

    1. “Pause for another second while I have an epiphany:”… LOL.

    2. “Hang on. This is about to get embarrassing.” I think know where this is going, even as I pray it’s something else. I relate. I relate too much. Cringe. LOL.

    3. “…rather than explode with gratitude…” Instant visual. It’s messy. LOL.

    4. “I was holding out for a fucking Hugo.” At first, LOL-ing at you. Then, suddenly, remembering my own imaginary meeting with Oprah at which she asks me to be the first person on her magazine cover besides her. Obviously. Bright red. Groan. Then LOL AT MYSELF.

    Great article, thank you. 😂🤦🏻‍♀️🙏🏽

    Liked by 1 person

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