“Once you have realized what you need to improve in your piece—either from a writing partner's helpful responses or your own insights—you're ready to begin revising, a process you would be well advised to learn to love. You have no choice, if you want to get good. The desire to revise is what separates the professional writer from the journal keeper.”
—Adair Lara, Naked, Drunk, and Writing
“This notbook is propperty of Chelene Knight. If you read this, you will regrett it!!”
This was written on the torn and yellowed cover of an old notebook I found a few weeks ago at the bottom of a box in my closet. Circa 1989.
When I was a young girl, I wrote with freedom. I wrote knowing that the stories I was creating and the worlds I was building were fantastic, mind-blowing, captivating. I felt this as early as seven years old. I got lost in my own stories, fumbling around in my characters’ minds picking up tangible objects, and placing them down in new positions and places. I had this power to choose the direction the story took. It was up to me whether or not the house came crashing down on the dragon or whether or not the chicken crossed the road. I carried this confidence in my writing close by my side for years. I tucked it deep in my pockets, kept it warm under my pillow at night, and when I awoke each morning my dreams came to me crystal clear and verbatim. I wrote stories the way my mind captured them, and I knew I could be a totally different person with that pencil in my hand.
My sixth-grade teacher was my biggest cheerleader. She told me early on that I was destined to be a writer and that I had to remember that, tell myself that, and embody that. But even though I was filling up five notebooks a month—notebooks full of character-rich stories that brought the reader in so close you could feel their breath against your own—my initial drafts were riddled with errors (see opening line), my printing was terrible, and I constantly mixed up their with there (cringe!) and so I thought … I’ll never be good at writing—let alone a professional writer— because I assumed that good writing meant being the best speller or grammarist in the class. I remember, even as a kid, I was more obsessed with the tip of the eraser than the pencil. Even before I knew what revision was, I looked forward to going back and making the work better.
Almost ten years ago I realized that perfectionism was hindering my creative process. I had just received feedback on a partial manuscript from someone who—instead of giving me substantive edits as I requested—completely formatted the draft in Times New Roman, slid the margins back, added commas, dashes, semi colons, switched the verb tense, and a few other unmentionables one would never do with a first draft. Who copy edits a first draft? Save that for draft ten thank you very much!
I write messy drafts. You write messy drafts. We all write messy drafts. And drafts should be messy, and that mess should be embraced. That initial page vomit is essential to the writing process because it’s the revision that breeds the gold. The first draft gives you something to work with and work toward, right?
But this growing desire to please the masses with a gold-polished, untarnished, see-your-face-in-it manuscript right off the bat is just the beginning. As soon as I stepped foot in high school I began to lose the confidence I had in my writing. Insert mandatory perfectionism here.
Although perfectionism affects various aspects of life inside and outside of writing, I think it’s imperative to start looking at how perfectionism has had an impact on the everyday lives of writers and people in general. Whether it’s the expectation to have the perfect body, flawless, hair, or be the perfect parent (whatever the heck that means), during my early highschool days it was ingrained in me that making mistakes was amateur and that I couldn’t even ask for help if I needed it. I had to get it right (get it perfect) right away.
In 1993 I wrote a critique on Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” for my brother’s eleventh-grade English class because he was also engulfed in that fear of getting it wrong. He begged me, “Come on Chelene, I hate this stuff! Just help me out!” I got him a B+ (not bad for a seventh-grader) but maybe he would have done even better on his own if he didn’t feel defeated before even getting started.
Here’s what I have gained from letting go of being a perfectionist
- I know when to stop editing
- I learned that the best writing is in the revision.
- I know how to set myself up for small mistakes/failures which makes rejection palatable
- I realized it’s pretty important to be kind to yourself
- I learned that it’s ok to make mistakes
The more involved I got in the writing community, the more my mentors told me that the best writing lived and hung out deep in the revision. Now I teach my students how to dig for the gold in their “page vomits” and it’s fun. Writing is fun again. Phew.
But what about those young writers who don’t have that sixth-grade cheerleader to back them up and reinforce that perfectionism isn’t healthy or helpful? And even bigger than that, how do perfectionist values bleed into other aspects of life? I don’t think I have the answers to these questions, but I’d like to encourage you all to take a step back from the pressure to produce flawless work, spontaneously. Let’s embrace the mistakes as learning experiences and reasons to dig for gold. I summon that seven-year-old Chelene who wrote with fire and freedom. That girl got the story on the page by any means necessary and I kinda miss her.
Hey, perfectionists: stop it right now thank you very much.
*Thanks to Kayi Wong for giving me the title inspiration.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making Room, Love Me True, Sustenance, The Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter.
The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” In addition to her work as a writer, Knight is managing editor at Room, programming director for the Growing Room Festival, and CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials. She often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling.
Knight is currently working on Junie, a novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, forthcoming in 2020.