A piece of writing is never finished, only abandoned.
I have seen variations of this quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, E.M. Forster, and Paul Valéry, just to name a few. It seems writers and artists struggle with knowing when a work is complete and I took that struggle to Olympic levels. In school, I was always the student who was printing off her paper five minutes before class, not because I had procrastinated but because I was always trying to improve what I had written in some way. (OK, sometimes it was because I procrastinated. Happy now?) I was also the academic sitting on the hotel floor outside her conference presentation room balancing a laptop on her knees and making last minute changes to her slideshow as the audience filed in. For me, deadlines were essential to finishing because without them I would hold on to my writing forever trying to make it perfect. I needed everything to be perfect because my fear of criticism was so intense it felt like impending death.
I think this inability to abandon my work was part of the reason I was never able to publish enough to become a tenured academic. (That and I hated every minute of it except for the teaching part.) I had drafts of at least four articles on my computer that I never submitted for publication because I didn’t think they were good enough. I needed someone to knock on my office door and say, “Time’s up. Give me the manuscript.” But that’s not how things work in academia. For some reason you are expected to be a grown-up and take responsibility for your own work, but I don’t remember that being explicitly stated in the contract I signed. In the end, I decided to quit and pursue a life as a writer on my own terms. Thing about that is there are even fewer deadlines as an independent writer. At least as an academic I had a tenure clock ticking in the background of my life for seven years, and even that wasn’t enough to overcome my fear of criticism and rejection.
My perfectionism and resulting inability to abandon my writing to an audience is why I almost bailed on my promise to publish one blog post a week. After four weeks of doing the work, I was ready to quit because I was feeling overwhelmed and didn’t think I would have enough time to write something I could allow you to read. And maybe this post isn’t fit for publication. Maybe I should have spent more time on it, but because perfectionism is part of my OCD I can’t rely on my internal sense of what’s finished and what’s not. I have to trust the process (one afternoon of writing = one post) and force myself to hit the publish button. I’m working with the same perfectionism in my garden. I have to set limits on the work I will do in each flower bed or I will spend all summer trying to perfect one while the others die of neglect. My perfectionism lost me an academic career and more than a few expensive plants, but I’m determined to make this writing career happen. If writing is what you want to do with your one wild and precious life I hope following along on my journey helps you make your dream a reality too.
All I can do is trust the process. The process matters more than the product because without the first the second would never exist. Ass in seat, fingers on keyboard. That’s what matters today and every day. So, I will be live on my Facebook page again tomorrow writing and asking you to join me.