The ‘P’ word; that snarky, dismissive label; the term that is supposedly a compliment and yet…isn’t: perfectionist. It’s something that many are accused of being and all deny that they are until the inevitable self-acceptance.
Hello, my name is Miranda, and I am a perfectionist.
In the last two years I have heard that term thrown at me more than I can remember. Each time I heard that dirty P word, I would turn red and stutter angrily, “I – am – not!” I would begin rambling on about the nonsensical idea that I could be a perfectionist if I was nowhere near to actually being perfect in my eyes. All those name-callers would just shake their head sympathetically, just making my embarrassment worse.
It has only been recently that I have learned to accept this about myself. My intensely hard work ethic, my never-satisfied yearning to be my best, has crossed the line into that tyrannizing state of mind that is perfectionism.
This year I am faced with a new situation in which to test my perfectionist nerves: I am a new peer writing tutor at the UCWbL. This is the first job of mine that I have been simultaneously both insanely ecstatic and petrifying intimidated by. In preparation, I have been coveting information. I have been eagerly snatching any piece of advice, tips, information, etc. about how to be a good writing tutor, perhaps even devouringly it like a mad lunatic. I have opposing pedagogy concepts bouncing around my head: directive vs. non-directive, mapping vs. agenda setting, reverse outlining vs. free-form conversation. All the while, I am panicking on the inside about being a good tutor. My inner perfectionist wants to give up: the life boats are being prepared for her to jump ship, her two weeks’ notice has been signed, sealed and stamped, and she has practiced her graceful bows of defeat. And all of this has taken place before I have even barely begun.
Before I continue with my breakdown process, I would like to mention that this isn’t abnormal or new to me. Perfectionism presents a constant struggle with my life, including my writing. Perfectionism is the tyrant that stands in between the writer and unrestrained creation. One of my favorites quotes by Anne Lamott in her book, Bird by Bird, runs as follows: “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.” When I first read this I thought, “Bull’s-eye.” Lamott expressed my feelings/thoughts exactly. And that part that stings the most is that no matter how carefully I tread, I am going to make mistakes anyway.
But as the axiom runs, acceptance is the first step to recovery.
The liberating lesson by Lamott is her chapter, “Shitty First Drafts.” Her essential message is simple: hit the ground running; dive in; let that wild child of a writer within you attempt to run free and get messy on the page, writing things in a way your typical, logical self would never normally allow—you may just find something special within that chaos.
There isn’t anyone my inner perfectionist bullies more than my inner writer. Sometimes my inner writer is successful in giving my inner perfectionist the wrong meet up time, avoiding confrontation. Other—unluckier—times, my inner perfectionist is able to criticize my inner writer into a corner hyperventilating. It’s a work in progress, but I am progressing.
You can’t write a great paper if you never begin writing. I can’t be a good peer tutor if I don’t begin. Inevitably, I will blunder. Nonetheless, I will have plenty to offer other writers. And my tutoring will improve with time and practice. The crucial step is taking a deep, steadying breath and making those scary first strides.