Review of The Pursuit of Perfection and how it Harms Writers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Pursuit of Perfection: And How It Harms Writers (WMG Writer’s Guide) (Volume 3) is one of the best — though brief at 46 pages — writing advice books I’ve read in some time (click either on the link or cover image to purchase at Amazon.). It’s especially valuable to those of us who are perfectionists, either by nature or training or a mix of the two. (I think most of us get a little of both along the way. Or perhaps the training reinforces the nature?) It’s also a nice introduction to thinking about writing in terms of a business pursuit as much as an art or craft.

The business side of writing is an area I’ve only recently begun to explore, so I won’t at this point talk too much about trying to tackle the business side of freelance writing. That area is regrettably one I’ve cast aside for far too long and have much to learn.

On the nature side of things, I think some of my perfectionistic tendencies might be rooted in psychological fears about money learned at an early age and reinforced in later life by negative experience and accepting some myths about writing, myths Rusch explores in the book. I wonder how many of you have had similar backgrounds when dealing with money and business education?

What I want to concentrate on in this review are some of the myths Rusch brings up. In particular, myths from the world of the MFA in creative writing. Now, I sheepishly admit there’s a bit of me — the ego protecting me — still touchy about not getting into an MFA program when I entered graduate school eons ago, so I tend to get a bit giddy about critiques of MFA programs in general. But, for me, I saw the MFA as a route to becoming a fiction writer — as a way other than publishing that validated my fiction as valuable. Isn’t either Stephen King or George Orwell who says writers write to get published because a publication is a validation of existence?

While I didn’t get into my school’s MFA program, I did get into its graduate program in English — barely. At least I would be around the MFAs, right? Maybe I could absorb some of those writers’ wisdom? (Of course, there are other reasons I went to grad school: I was deeply afraid of engaging with the real world. Fear is always a constant bugaboo, isn’t it?).

So, here is one paragraph from Rusch’s book that dug into my brain like a hungry worm:

Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.

And that’s just bullshit.

What hit me so much about this passage was that it seemed outside of being a scholar and teaching (whether in secondary schools or at colleges or universities) there was nothing offered of how my English degree could help me make a living. It wasn’t until I consulted a school counseling service for other issues that I even thought I could be an editor. Still, I had no idea how to go about becoming an editor. And for that matter, an editor of what?

Scholarship seemed to be for scholarship’s sake as getting a creative writing degree seemed to be for the sake of producing more MFAs. On the other hand, the journalism department at the other end of campus taught their students to be journalists. You learned how to get internships at a paper or radio or TV station. You learned marketable job skills.

There was also a sense in grad school that a career of some sort, that pursuing a profession was something of a betrayal of art or politics or even self. Now, this was the ’90s and I know now there are classes in editing, and degrees offered in technical and professional writing. So, things are changing. Maybe? But how many people are getting their MFAs just to get them?

Anyhow, this isn’t to disparage my graduate school experience: I learned great research skills, I read a lot of literary works that I had missed or avoided in my reading life and my critical thinking skills are stronger than say the average bear.

But, I’ve had to struggle with the cannot make a living at writing thing for a long time — about two decades. I would write stories and take two or three months and polish them to perfection then submit them to one or two usually non-paying literary journals or magazines, get them rejected and pretty much give up on them. I still go through this. I’ve brought my perfectionism to my journalism and to my fiction writing still.

It’s something I work through and hope to overcome. Some of it’s rooted in fear, which I think is part of the perfectionist’s nature. But, Reading Rusch’s book has helped even with that part of me, giving me a different way of thinking.

— Todd

 

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The Horror, The Horror: Perfectionism’s Dangers

In December, The New York Times published a piece on perfectionism, how those of us who are perfectionists may be more inclined to mental distress, including depression and suicidal thinking, than the imperfect out there.

Unfortunately, I’m a perfectionist, though I tend to waver between the triad of behaviors researchers have discovered: at any given time I have struggled with perhaps overly high standards I’ve set for myself to the point in which my inner critic sends me to the edge, have placed my own high expectations on others, and have, in turn, killed relationships, and have agonized over living up to ideals I believe others expect of me to the point of being caught in downward spirals that have crushed me.

As psychology professor Gordon L. Flett notes in the piece, in some aspects of life, surgery, say, or editing, perfection is a necessity: mistakes can have dire consequences.

In my life as a writer and editor, I’ve tended toward perfectionism at each of the three levels described in the piece. In particular, I engage in self-criticism to the point of getting depressed that anything I write or edit will never be good enough. At the same time I fret outside criticism, especially when it’s negative, coming to believe that if I haven’t met expectations, I have failed others, and myself. And I’ve heaped criticism on others to the point of ridiculous shouting matches.

This morning I was close to despair when I discovered a comma splice in a comment I made here.

That’s an elementary mistake, and  a mistake no good writer should make. And that just shows you how stupid and incompetent you are.

Or those were thoughts that suddenly raced to mind, and it’s taken me half an hour to overcome what might to some seem a minor lapse. In just that little struggle with perfection and error, I can see the dangers of perfectionism. I was agonized by a comma splice, feeling horrified to have committed such an elementary grammatical error. For half an hour, I was an utter failure.

I’m not dead yet, however. I’m feeling much better now.