As a journalist I don’t have the luxury of endless rounds of revisions. When the story is due, I file. The same is true when each packet is due for my MFA in Writing program.
No deadline? I keep editing, revising, tweaking. Unlike some of the artists I interviewed on my cr0ss-country U.S. road trip, I suffer from the paralysis of “Not Quite.”
- Way back in February I wrote a personal essay in a local writing class. The instructor liked it so much she continued working with me on it after the 8-week class was over. I received further advice and encouragement on the essay from a graduate instructor at my MFA residency. It is now September. I’ve submitted it to a grand total of two journals. In both cases the editors wrote personal notes saying they liked it, it didn’t quite work, but be sure to send it elsewhere. I’m still sitting on it.
- Last month a talented writer, Jessica McCann, alerted me to an essay contest she thought was perfect for me. The deadline was two days away. I did my best and fired off a short essay. Was the work everything I wanted it to be? Absolutely not. I just learned yesterday that I won first place in that contest, and it will be published online soon.
This paralysis of “Not Quite” can be linked to perfectionism, a demon I know many writers live with every day. But novelist Brenna Lyons, my interview subject in Haverhill, Massachusetts, has overcome the “Not Quite” paralysis. When I asked how she had authored so many books, she shared her secret: “Never leave a manuscript lying around. If you’ve got something completed, for mercy’s sake get it in front of an editor or publisher.”
Now the key word there is “completed.” Somehow Brenna has taught herself how to make that declaration. I haven’t. But it is a statement of fact that one can’t be published if publishers don’t see one’s works.
Every week I write a to-do list. As the week progresses I cross items off the list. It’s pretty obvious when I don’t complete a task; not only does it stand out surrounded by crossed-out entries, I then have to copy it over to the new week’s list. For months now I’ve been re-writing the line “Submit personal essay.”
Perhaps the problem is fear of rejection. But an author I interviewed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Lillian Cauldwell, has no fear: “I learned a long time ago, the only thing someone can do is slam the door in your face, throw the phone down on the hook, or tell you to drop dead twice.”
Absent a deadline, how do you fight that “Not Quite” paralysis and declare a creative work complete and ready to submit?
UPDATE 09/20/11: Oh my. After writing a draft of this post I forced myself to submit the personal essay mentioned in #1 above to a few literary journals I found on NewPages. I just heard back from one of them, Barely South Review, They’ve asked to publish the work in a volume coming out in 2012. If that isn’t a lesson on the importance of submitting your work, I don’t know what is!
UPDATE 09/21/11: Oh my again. This conversation has prompted me to get off my butt and finish up a personal essay I started two months ago and put aside. To help spur me, I found a deadline to meet, a journal contest that needs entries no later than Monday. Apologies if I become a bit quiet on Twitter and Facebook the next few days…