Perfectionism and Shitty First Drafts

Vicki Doudera here with you today, thinking about the process of putting a book on paper, largely because I’m doing just that in between our various Christmas traditions and festivities.

I had tea with a good friend the other day, a woman who is extremely talented at many, many, things, including but not limited to: gardening, cooking, home repairs, and blogging. I have seen her transform three properties,, taking them from bona fide ugly ducklings to magical Cinderellas, and, in large part, she’s done all of the work to make them shine herself. Her gift is in recognizing the potential in a derelict house or piece of land, and in being able to take the steps (and have the energy and persistence) to get the job done.

Carole writes a great blog chronicling her current home renovation on a sweet house she’s named Catch Meadow Cottage. I was complimenting her on her posts, and she said that although she enjoyed blogging, she could never imagine writing books. “How do you do it?” she asked. “I just can’t see how I would get it all organized.”

I don’t always know the answer to things immediately, but this time I was sure I knew why Carole might struggle to write a book but not a blog. The answer has to do with perfectionism and what Anne Lamott has termed “shitty first drafts.”

First let me say that I know Carole pretty well.  We first met when our kids were little, and that was a good twenty years ago. I will never forget our sons playing in a meadow and Carole being able to identify every single plant we encountered. Later we made some sort of craft and I continued to be amazed by her knowledge and aplomb. Did I add that she’s a great cook?

As our kids grew, we remained friends and neighbors. Last year I had the privilege of helping Carole sell her home, a large multifamily Colonial surrounded by perennial gardens. I’d seen this place before Carole bought it, and it to say it was a wreck is putting it mildly. Suffice to say that Carole took a derelict, almost dangerous house, and made it a place of beauty and style. Believe me, when Carole finishes a project, the adjective that pops into your mind is “perfect.”

And therein lies the problem.

Yes, Carole is a perfectionist, and if you’re in real estate, these are the best clients to have. Their homes are always immaculate and they fix things in a heartbeat. Last minute showing? Not to worry – your perfectionist homeowner’s rooms are never messy. Their lawns are always mowed, fences neatly painted, and any information you need from them has been neatly filed away.

I suspect that being a perfectionist is also a good trait for bloggers. No missed posts, no uncaptioned photos – you get the idea. Because a blog post is small, it can be massaged and honed until it sparkles.

But it is awfully hard to write a whole book if you are a perfectionist.

I know this firsthand because I’ve struggled with this affliction my whole life. It wasn’t until my daughter was born and I saw the same traits in her that I really addressed them in myself. (Of course, it was a book that helped me – Never Good Enough: How to use Perfectionism to Your Advantage Without Letting it Ruin Your Life by  Monica Ramirez Basco,) I learned the difference between healthy striving for goals and perfectionism, and why perfectionists so often fall prey to procrastination.

I told Carole that writing a book requires turning off that nagging internal editor, the one squawking away about ill-formed sentences and vague paragraphs. Writing a book means giving oneself permission to create those shitty first drafts.

That’s the stage I’m in right now as I plug away on my fifth Darby Farr mystery. You can bet my perfectionist self isn’t too happy with the pages piling up in slow succession.  I appease her by telling her she can have all the fun she wants as soon as the first draft is done. Until then, she has to sit in the corner and keep her mouth shut.

And you know what? Given enough chocolate and tea, she actually listens.

How perfect is that?

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7 Responses to Perfectionism and Shitty First Drafts

  1. John Clark says:

    Great post! Two things I’ve heard in my travels came to mind while reading it. First was something a wise and wonderful AA friend was wont to say close to 30 years ago: “Serenity is the ability to live with unresolved problems.” Second is something another writer told me. When you feel your inner prosecuting attorney striding toward the judge, don’t forget to let your inner defense attorney earn his/her pay.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    I, too, love John’s quote … love your insight about the relationship between perfectionism and procrastination and … now have no excuses. Got to go write.

  3. thelma straw says:

    Thank you for a thought-provoker! Sometimes the best writing in a mystery novel is when the author just says what he/she feels like saying – the hell with proper syntax, etc! I see this in the novels that really really hold my interest, glued to the pages!!! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

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