I am a recovering perfectionist. That’s probably the best way to put it.
You may feel that being a perfectionist is a good thing? After all, how can a quest for the ideal ever be a bad thing and shouldn’t we always try to do our best? Well, a job well done is important, and I am not advocating sloppy work, but perfectionists can become stalled and unable to function simply because perfection is hard to achieve because it’s, well, perfection. Perfectionists know this on a cognitive level, but deep down, they feel that if something can’t be perfect, then why bother tackling it at all? Or many have the idea that, more often than not, the results of their work will fall far short of perfection and this realization causes them to become frozen in their own doubt.
That’s how it is with me, anyway, but over the years, I have learned to cope with this paralysis in order to be moderately productive in life. When it comes to writing, this is where pencils come in.
I love all writing implements, but I have a special love for pencils. Pencils with large erasers.
When I am in doubt about my writing, frozen in front of a computer screen (and while I know we can hit “delete” on a computer keyboard, it’s just not the same thing, psychologically), when I’m not sure where to start, I drag out a yellow legal pad and open up my pencil box (pictured above).
“Write something crappy,” I tell myself. “Go on. It’s just for fun!”
I start writing then. I don’t allow myself to stop, even if I think what I’m writing is stupid, because the idea is to just get started. In pencil.
Why pencil? Well, for one thing, it’s casual. It’s breezy. It’s reminiscent of school and homework, nothing serious. One of my high school classmates (I couldn’t tell you who) once said–when catching me doing math homework in pen–that doing math in pen is like picking your nose with a wire hook. I needed to be able to EARASE! He was genuinely mortified that I couldn’t erase and the same is often true with writing. Therefore, pencils bring me back to the world of homework and drafting ideas and sketching concepts, not official “sign-this-in-black-ink” documentation thoughts of which pen evokes.
Pencil lead is ephemeral–at least theoretically. I have journal entries going back 30 years that are written in pencil, so I’m not so sure it’s as ephemeral as we think, but because it is so easily erased, I think of it that way. Pencil isn’t meant to be lasting, which allows me to write something that is equally ephemeral. When I write in pencil, I say to myself, “This is not permanent. I will improve this. This is just for now.” And that gets me going.
The yellow legal pad also plays a role–legal pads are for jotting ideas, notes, brainstorming….they aren’t for preserving forever. When combined with pencil lead, it’s the perfect recipe for a paralytic writer to overcome perfectionism.
You can erase this, pencil says. It’s okay if it’s crap.
At some point in this process, I feel confident in what I’m doing to move onto a computer. Not that I think it’s perfect, but by then, I’m at the “it’ll do” phase and I’ve passed the perfectionist hump. Sometimes, I will write a whole first draft in pencil and then re-invent the new draft as I write on the computer, adding scenes, taking whole new angles, changing POV, etc. but the bones of the thing are down in pencil.
Then, once I have a draft on the computer, I shred the yellow legal papers covered in pencil. I love doing that, too, and it’s also an important part of the process, for me.
So, if anyone out there suffers from perfection-induced writing paralysis, you might try digging out a pencil or two, with a nice new eraser, and see if this works for you!