In Praise of Mistakes: Confessions of Recovering Perfectionist

by Monica Shaughnessy

pink-eraser-174736-mAs my daughter flipped through my sketch book the other day, she chided me for having so many “mess-ups.” “I’m not putting any scratchy doodles in my book,” she said. “I’m only putting in the stuff that’s perfect. The stuff you could frame.” I got all Yoda on her, and (gently) told her that it’s okay to make mistakes every now and then, because if you don’t, how will you ever arrive at the perfect stuff?

As a recovering perfectionist, that was an extremely hard thing for me to say, much less believe. But it’s advice that holds true for just about everyone but surgeons, nuclear engineers, and brake repairmen. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that anyone undertaking a creative endeavor, be it painting, composing music, or writing a book, should make mistakes. If you don’t, you’re not leaving the door open to true genius. But creative wisdom comes from knowing when your crazy, messy projects are ready for public consumptions and when they should be locked away.

During my years as a writer, I’ve seen two extremes: people who rush to show the world something that’s not ready and people who hang on to their projects for way too long. Usually, the dabblers and the hobbyists can’t wait to show everyone what they’ve done. (Look! Look! I just wrote a book on how to dye Easter eggs with onion skins and antifreeze! It’s three pages long and only $5.99!) One cursory glance at Smashwords* will tell you that. But the writers who are in it for the long-haul are the ones that tend to wait for perfection. Why? Because they care about the words and the story more than the fleeting thrill of the upload or submission. Yet perfectionism is counterproductive to growth.

I have a book in my published collection (I won’t tell you which one), that I rewrote for FIVE years. I added characters. I took them out. I revised the plot at least three times. I upped the age of the protagonist. I lowered it. Everyone I asked had an opinion, and they all got incorporated into my story. It never got published. Finally, I called B.S. on everything, got a clear vision of how the story should really go, and rewrote the darn thing one. last. time. I learned and re-learned on that manuscript. But it was only when I stopped intellectualizing the story and approached it with a gut feel that I arrived at that confident conclusion: I’m done. Had I not finished it–and I mean really finished it–I might still be stuck in neutral, chasing that unattainable goal of perfection.

If, like me, you struggle occasionally with perfectionism, here’s a checklist for how to know when to stop working on your project:

1. Each successive round of feedback doesn’t make your project better, it just makes it different.

2. Your peers are absolutely sick of this particular story/song/work of art and can no longer tell you what to change. (hint: because nothing needs to change)

3. When you look at your work, your gut reaction is pride or, at a minimum, a sense of completion. (I didn’t say your intellectual reaction)

4. Your mind has begun to drift to other things you could be working on because your subconscious has already worked out all the issues it could on your current WIP.

You’ll notice I didn’t say that your work is ready to sell or display. Because at the end of the creative process, you may still have something that’s altogether “messy” and unacceptable. And you may need to set it aside and work on something else. But understand that your effort was not wasted. The next project you undertake will be with a better sense of what works and what doesn’t, of which skills and competencies you possess and which ones you don’t. That’s growth.

Now go out there and make a huge mess of things. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.

*I love Smashwords, okay? I think it’s a great platform and its publishing tools are superior, in many ways, to Amazon. And scads of serious writers use them as a sales outlet. But have you seen some of the stuff for sale on that site? I mean, come on.


Your turn. Are you a perfectionist? Do you have any trusted methods for figuring out when to stop working on a project? Do you go with your head? Or your gut?