Don’t Compare Yourself to Yourself

I tend to meet a lot of perfectionists in the writing craft. I’m one of them! And it’s an absolute beast to face up to one of the hardest truths about our calling. So I’m just going to say it:

Writers, I have good news and bad news for you. What you are writing will never be perfect. You will never achieve perfection.

This is the best and worst thing about writing. No one is perfect, ourselves included. But here’s the beautiful contrast…if we aren’t perfect, and if we will never achieve that esoteric triumph of “perfection,” then we’re good enough as we are.

The difficult thing is getting to a place where we accept this.

During a recent session of commiserating over those days where you hate everything you put on paper, someone in my writing group said, “It’s a hard lesson that nobody ever tells you…they all say not to compare yourself to others. But nobody ever tells you not to compare yourself to yourself.”

This hit me so hard. I am absolutely guilty of this. As in, presently, actively guilty. Recently, I’ve been slogging through the doldrums of Book 4 in my current WIP series, Starchaser. I frequently find myself comparing Book 3 (which required an 80% rewrite) and Book 4 (which has been restarted and overhauled uncountable times in the three weeks it’s been underway) with Books 1 and 2, which, comparatively speaking, were “easier” to draft.

But that’s me comparing myself to myself, isn’t it? It’s looking at where I am in the journey and saying that where I was before was better, easier…and therefore there must be something wrong with my story, because I’m struggling now. But to put things in perspective: not long ago, I stumbled onto an Instagram post from the late summer, where I was celebrating the end of Book 2 because the drafting process had “challenged me in ways no book had before.”

(I have zero memory of that challenge, by the way. It’s all sunshine and rainbows after the finish line.)

As writers, getting to a place where we don’t want to be the next J.K. Rowling, or the next James Patterson, but the first and only (Your Name Here), is an achievement unto itself. But what do you do on days when you like what Old Your Name wrote better than what he or she is currently writing?

This is where we have to overcome that tendency to judge our writing based on what we’ve written before. We have to stop striving for perfection…especially in the drafting process. Everyone’s first drafts vary in levels of roughness, but it’s a universal truth that you can’t look at the whole picture until the paint is on the canvas. Writing is the same way. You have to shut down that critical voice and keep writing (something I’ll cover in this week’s Coffee Talk, to give you some ideas for how to silence the dreaded Inner Editor during the drafting process). You can’t sit still long enough to think about how your old stuff was so much better, or how this was easier last week, last month, last year. You’re not there, and you won’t be here forever. That’s the beauty and the pain. The only way forward is forward.

My encouragement to you this week is this: Don’t look too hard at the words you’ve written before, and how wonderful they were, as a grade curve for your current writing. And don’t look ahead too far, wondering if those future words will be better or worse than what you’re doing now. Just write in the moment, to the best of your ability. Embrace the fact that the words you’ve already written are not perfect, no matter how fondly you remember them. The ones you are writing now are not perfect. The ones you will write won’t be perfect. But all of it is good enough.

To close, I’d like to quote Neil Gaiman, from his 8 Tips About Writing. As a perfectionist writer, this quote has become my anthem. I hope it will help all of you, too:

“Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”

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