Why writers need to practice generosity

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Have you ever wondered how to fight perfectionism? I’ve battled it for many years. Let me share my strategy…

Born into a highly competitive family, with a father — a writer — who believed his five children always needed to try a whole lot harder, I felt as if I was engaged in one big rivalry for most of my early life.

If school was a fire, then his you-can-always-do-better attitude acted as a set of bellows. Who had the highest marks in my class? Who was published in the school magazine? Who was editor of the school yearbook? Who won the debates? (My very DNA set me on a course towards the debating club.)

Making matters worse, the work I did in high school and university only cemented these notions. I reviewed books and papers — critiquing their conclusions, their structure, their style. I was encouraged to find flaws or shortcomings in other thinkers’ works. I was taught to scorn classmates who made spelling or grammatical errors.

Then, in my case at least, I went into newspapering: a profession awash with writers who desperately sought to be more acute, more insightful, more adept than their colleagues. Some published books. The rest of us were envious.

Now that I’ve published my own book, I can say with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight that being competitive did not help me one iota. If anything, it hurt me, adding at least another six months to the book-writing process. Writing is not about competing, it turns out. It’s about quelling the inner voice of doubt buried deep inside our neocortex.

People often confess to me that they’re “perfectionists,” and that this is their biggest problem with writing. When I was younger, in fact, experts used to say that confessing to being a perfectionist was the ideal answer to the classic job interview question: What’s your biggest fault? After all, who wouldn’t admire a perfectionist? (Don’t try that these days. Perfectionism is now a dirty word.)

The problem with perfectionism is that it seems like an inherent mistake to crush it. After all, who wants to produce less perfect copy? Of course it’s impossible to see that as a good thing. My advice? Forget the perfectionist lingo.

Focus, instead, on reducing your competitive feelings and increasing your generous ones. If you’re not happy with how you’re speaking to yourself then take a quick look at how you speak about others. If someone you know does something that really bugs you, ask yourself why it should affect you so deeply. If you see a piece of writing that you really dislike, instead of badmouthing the author, figure out why you dislike it.

This might take you from, “He’s a really boring writer,” to “I could make my own writing more interesting by including better quotes.” From, “She’s such a braggart,” to “I’ve been missing some chances to promote myself.” From, “They’re so pretentious,” to “How could I be more humble?”

The idea isn’t to become a better person. It’s more about focusing on your own life, on what you want to accomplish. Some people (lucky me, my husband is one) are born with the gene of generosity. They see mostly the good in people. They almost always imagine exemplary motives. They are happy for the success of their friends.

Others of us are born or raised to be less generous and more competitive. Steeped in the art of critiquing should it really surprise us when our own internal editor or shoulder devil starts turning on us? 

So for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to have a generous attitude, naturally, let me spell out the selfish reason for practicing generosity:

If you can be generous with others your nasty, judgmental inner critic will be less harsh with you. The next time you find yourself critiquing your own work, stop for a moment and reflect on what you say about the writing of others. If it’s negative, then break the habit.

As the old saying has it, when you point one finger at someone else, there are always three pointing back at you.

P.S. If you’re writing a book or thesis and want some accountability, consider my Get it done program. Applications for the January to March session close Jan. 2.
How do you deal with perfectionism? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by December 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the inspirational non-fiction book, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.
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