Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

I think I have not actually looked at my copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird in more than five years. I went looking for it this morning and could not even remember where I stashed it among my books. It took a moment before I realized it must be hiding on the top of the bookcases, in the “reference books I never read” section (distinct from my completely-separate history book collection).

But when it comes to Anne Lamott’s writing advice, I don’t have to pull the book from the shelves to remember what I learned from her as a sophomore in college: no matter what you do, simply write.

It’s a lesson I’ve been working on for more than a decade, a lesson that became all the more important as I started graduate school five years ago and began agonizing over every written assignment. Now that I’ve finished drafting all six chapters of my dissertation (!), I’ll tell you two things I’ve learned in no uncertain terms:

  1. I’m still working on this lesson (I expect it’s a lifetime-long sort of thing), and
  2. I could not have written this dissertation without embracing the “shitty first draft”.

The truth is that I am a perfectionist with my work. Or, as I like to think of it – I’m a recovering perfectionist, as this is something I’ve been working to overcome for the last five years. Perfectionism, as it turns out, gets in the way of things more than it actually helps. (As Lamott says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor…and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” Also, “perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force.” (Lamott, 28).)

In my experience, five years of graduate school teaches you a lot about your writing habits, your strengths, and your weaknesses. I’ve learned that revisions are my bread and butter, and that facing the blank page is one of my greatest challenges (see: perfectionist tendencies). My solution? Conquer the Blank Page.

I like to think I’ve gotten very good at drafting. I can eliminate the blank page in fairly short order and transfer something from my brain to the screen. That something tends to be the worst writing you have ever seen, but as it turns out, it helps me get started. In a couple of hours, I can pour out about ten to fifteen double-spaced pages of the very early thoughts on a chapter topic. I do this, of course, by simply writing.

There’s no rhyme or reason to it. It’s not quite freewriting (I pay attention to grammar and spelling and all that). In a sense, it’s stream of consciousness, but some of it will appear more Faulkneresque while other parts sound like I’m actually trying to write a real academic piece. I don’t delete anything. I do tend to write “this is crap” at least once or twice every two pages, and the general tone tends to be “here’s what I’m thinking I need to do in this chapter…” – as if I’m talking to my best friend.

Before I know it, I have something. Something I can create an outline from and begin to make into a real chapter. Once I have a rough outline – which will change, and become more detailed as I continue to write – I divide the chapter into sections. Sections, you see, are far more mentally (and physically) manageable to work with than the prospect of an entire chapter.

Lynn Hunt wrote in a recent issue of AHA’s Perspectives:

Everyone who has written at any substantial length, whether prose or poetry, knows that the process of writing itself leads to previously unthought thoughts. Or to be more precise, writing crystallizes previously half-formulated or unformulated thoughts, gives them form, and extends chains of thoughts in new directions.

This is why the shitty first draft – Lamott’s term, not mine – is so important. If you haven’t written anything yet, how can you know what you’re thinking?

If that sentence sounds a bit like something out of Alice and Wonderland, my apologies. But as impossible as it may sound, it’s also absolutely true. Getting the information out of the brain and onto the screen (or the page, if you prefer) helps move you forward. Eventually, you’ll find you’re there, wherever and whatever “there” tends to be.

I become a bit obsessive when I sit down to write a chapter. Once I do my shitty first draft, I want more – I want to make it better. With five straight days of writing, I can take my shitty first draft to something more solid, more real.  After another three to five days, I realize I have something that will work. Something readable. Something advisor-ready.

I guess that sounds easy, in some ways. It’s really not – and getting to this stage has not been an easy process at all. Writing is really hard work for me, and the only way I can get through it is to keep writing – to trust what I’m doing and keep running down the rabbit hole to see what’s there.

And maybe more than anything, writing a dissertation has been all about learning to face and conquer fears. The fear that you don’t really have anything to say, that you’re not a good researcher, that people won’t understand you or will laugh at your work. Writing a dissertation is, in the end, about finding confidence in your abilities and your knowledge, and being able to take what you’ve written and give it to the world (even if that “world” is only your advisor, your committee, or your fellow grad students).

The blank page, then, is only the beginning. It gets way more fun after that.

4 thoughts on “Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

  1. Pingback: Fear itself « Robot, ABD

  2. “As if I’m talking to my best friend”–I do the same thing! Although it’s more like I’m giving myself a pep talk, or at least I like to think of it that way.

    This is a nice piece on writing–and kudos to your for churning your drafts out so quickly! An inspiration to us all!

  3. I am nearly at the end of Bird by Bird, I bought it after it was recommended to me by someone on twitter as a writing aid. I’ve really enjoyed it, and the comments you make about applying it to academic writing are spot-on.

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