I started writing as a child, drafting books on yellow legal pads and illustrating them with crayons. Once, I gathered up several years of stories, and brought them in an armful to Kinko’s to be spiral-bound in curled black plastic. When I stacked them on my bookshelf at home, it felt like I had written my own library. Being a writer felt natural, like a species.
But there was another side to me, a side that would smooth any paper that got creased and retie the laces of my shoes until both felt equally tight against my foot. The more I learned about words, the more I felt that way about them; on some kind of scale within me, they each settled with a specific mass that I felt in ounces. But as I grew older, that specificity became constricting. I began to lose the ability to tolerate first drafts, where nothing was quite right. Shortly after I graduated college, leaving creative writing classes and mandatory assignments behind, I was barely writing at all. Perfectionism had given me a unique voice as a writer, but it also made me stop creating.
The first time I lived on my own, I drove to Home Depot three times trying to pick a shade of white to paint the bedroom of my new apartment. Three times I held color swatches fanned out in a half-circle, each one named something soothing: Magnolia, Linen, Dove. The differences seemed small until I held them against a card of pure white, shocking as a tooth, against which the yellow undertones of all those shades suddenly looked like plaque and coffee stains.
I picked one–delicate with a warm undertone, manufacturer’s code OC-17, “White Dove” by Benjamin Moore. At the counter, the mixing process was mechanical and reassuring. A computer injected the precise combination of chemicals to tint a colorless test can, and a machine tumbled it like laundry for three to five minutes. The sales associate unscrewed the top, dipped his pinky in the paint, and pressed it against the lid to mark the color with a small stamp, ridged with his fingerprint.
Back at my apartment, I covered about two square feet of wall with feathered edges before I stepped back and started to imagine the whole room permanently covered in that color. My confidence dropped away, all at once. If I picked the wrong shade, each time I looked at it I’d feel restless, a discomfort like dry skin. I had to know it would be perfect, or I didn’t even want to try.
Shortly after graduation, I made a decision that might seem counterintuitive to minimizing my creative anxiety: I took a full-time writing job. Soon, I was immersed in deadlines, and stalling in perfectionism was no longer a viable option. I had to write first drafts, no matter how bad, so my editors and I had something on the page to improve. Slowly, I realized that no matter how much I had thought of writing as a “calling”, keeping it a hobby meant that it was ultimately optional. I had let my perfectionism become a way out of practicing the basic, unglamorous skills that it takes to grow as a writer.
I still struggle to keep the controlling, editorial side of my process from overwhelming the enthusiastic, generative side. Poetry, the most precise and personal of my writing, presents the greatest challenge. I have to remember what I discovered in those first legal-pad storybooks, and what drew me into writing in the first place: that drafting is play, a chance to create characters with shifting names and moods, losing them for better companions with a turn of the page.
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