I spent a lot of time trying to be a specific type of writer. I think it all started in undergrad, when I tried to write a specific thing for a grade. That behavior haunted me for a long time. Then I said to myself, “You can be perfect or you can be happy.”
If you’ve never taken a college-level creative writing class, that might not make sense to you. But let me explain.
College-level creative writing isn’t just writing your feelings or making up a story. It’s looking at the whole literary canon and finding your place within it. It’s sayin something with your work, and saying it in a way that is uniquely your style.
Think about the harshest criticism you ever received from a college professor. Then, apply that criticism to a story that is an extension of you. Because that’s what writing is.
It can make you feel like the criticism is being applied to you, not your work. And regardless of where the criticism falls, it still stings.
That’s why I needed to learn that you can be perfect or you can be happy.
You Can Be Perfect or You Can Be Happy
It’s a platitude to say that nobody’s perfect. We know it to be true. But it’s hard to remember that sometimes.
Social media makes it seem like everyone has what you want. As a writer, I follow tons of writers and see their success seemingly play out in real time.
Sure, I don’t see the behind the scenes footage or watch them fail. Nobody posts that.
But I do read their books and see the amazing things they come up with. I get viscerally jealous when I read some of their work because I know I will never be that good.
I have to remind myself that these people aren’t perfect. I have to step back and remind myself that a lot of work went into their books. Everything good comes from taking imperfect action.
I have to remind myself that I’m no longer in that creative writing classroom, and that I’ll never be back there again.
I have to remind myself that I get to determine what I do as a writer these days. I don’t have to meet a standard set by a professor or the whole literary canon.
I get to have fun with my writing.
And that’s the thing that really makes me excited. For the first time in a long time, I finally feel free to be happy about writing. There is so much joy in knowing you will never be perfect.
Being Happy Doesn’t Mean Some Things Aren’t Perfect
I’m not sure why I felt so obligated to be a literary writer, or let the idea of being a writer who “mattered” cloud my thoughts for so long.
I do have a long history of trying to fit in and making myself into whatever I need to be in order to get by, so I assume that is the main cause.
But now, as I sit back and enjoy reading and writing romance, it’s like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Sure, I still have that old feeling of needing to be a certain type of writer, or I get stuck in my work because I feel like it isn’t good enough. I know now it doesn’t have to perfect.
(Draft one is never good enough, nor should it be.)
For the most part, though, I feel happy. And there is nothing like working your way through a story and actually enjoying the process. For so long, I didn’t have that feeling.
And that’s the thing. I know I’m not achieving that perfectionist ideal of literature. But I’m happy. And maybe being happy is perfect.
Things have changed significantly in my life in the past three years. I quit my day job to freelance full-time. I got married. Chris and I moved into our dream house that we will never leave, not even in death so I hope in like fifty to seventy years, the new owners of this house don’t mind our ghosts.
There are so many things in my life that are perfect right now. It seemed so silly to ruin it with being an angry, grumpy writer who hated her work.
(If you’re stuck trying to make everything perfect, I have some affirmations for perfectionism for you.)
Perfect Is Like a Cup of Coffee
I would like to take a moment to calibrate our definition of perfect.
My perfect cup of coffee is decaf, served black. (Yes, I switched to decaf a few months ago and let me tell you I feel so much better and my anxiety is mostly gone and I get such good sleep every single night.)
Your perfect cup of coffee may be a fancy latte from Starbucks. Still, others like instant coffee.
Battles are waged online about whether pour over or drip coffee or French press is the best. Some folks live for their Keurig.
Everyone has a different definition of the perfect cup of coffee. And it probably goes without saying that everyone has a different definition of perfect.
So as you’re going about the work you do, remember your definition of perfect. Make sure you’re going for that.
It took me way too long to realize I could do that.
Happy Is Perfect
I’m writing this on my couch. I have the Christmas tree lit up in the corner, and a fire in the fireplace. My dog is snoring on the couch next to me. Chris is still asleep in the other room as the sun starts to rise.
I could write like this forever. And even though my life doesn’t look anything like I thought it would when I was writing short stories in college, I think that’s okay.
I get to work on the creative stuff I want to work on after I hit my freelance deadlines. I get to write the stories that are in my head without worrying if they fit into the greater picture of literature. I get to have fun doing the work I want to do.
It makes me happy. And being happy is the perfect I want to strive for right now.