Everyone who confesses to this fault, I suspect, is actually bragging. It’s the classic answer in a job interview. “What’s your greatest weakness?” “I’m a perfectionist.” I’m going to be contrary and confess that I’m not one.
My clothes? I have no clue what’s fashionable. If an outfit is clean and has no holes in it, it’s good to go. I don’t wear makeup, and haven’t since I quit acting. If I’m not onstage, the face I woke up with will have to suffice. My apartment and office are neither neat nor chaotic, clean but on the disorderly side. I don’t worry about it other than to move my free weights out of the living room if I’m having guests. Maybe.
So much of my life has been spent in public—acting, dancing, teaching academic classes and yoga and fitness classes—that I have spent many hours being irretrievably imperfect in front of an audience. When responding honestly to a novel situation in a classroom, I’ve sometimes said the wrong thing and couldn’t put it back in my mouth. I could only try to clarify. How many times in teaching yoga have I called right left or called elbows knees? You can’t redo live performance or teaching, only do your best and have a sense of humor.
Of course, I have higher expectations of my language skills when I can revise. While I’m not a full-blown perfectionist, when it comes to word choice and sentence structure, I can get close. One reason I do my plot analysis with a printout is so I won’t be distracted by the changes I would make if I could touch the keyboard. I indicate which sentence I should cut or revise with an orange highlight and a C or an R and keep going. After I make the needed plot changes, I do the “cut revision.” The purpose of this is tightening: consolidating ideas and examining every scene for excess lines, every line for excess words. It may seem perfectionistic to do this before I send it out for the second round of critiquing, but want my critique partners to be able to tell me if the plot is paced well without the distraction of verbal clutter. (I cut four thousand words from my current WIP.)
Another reason I cut so much is because I know my editor will usually ask me to add a few lines to clarify something. We can go back and forth several times over the best way to rephrase a sentence without either of us thinking the other is too picky. I keep double-checking my research, too, finessing tiny details. As long as it makes the book better, I don’t feel pathologically perfectionistic. I know when it’s done, and then I’m ready to let go. No matter how hard we try to make them perfect, no book ever is.
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