Do You Suffer from “Not-Quite” Paralysis?

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.”

I can get a little obsessive. Last Halloween, the wife and kids quickly finished their jack-o-lanters, then went inside to have pumpkin pie by the fire. I stayed outside in the cold, fussing with Italy's boot.

Two examples:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”

Entreaties to The Great Pumpkin couldn't change the fact that my design left the pumpkin structurally weakened. After 24 hours it collapsed, like a prop in a cheesy 1950's alien-attack movie.

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…

40 thoughts on “Do You Suffer from “Not-Quite” Paralysis?

  1. Patrick, well said on everything. Congrats on the contest win! And commiserations on the pumpkin. (Cool photos, by the way :~)

    From the editor’s point of view, and after years of working with writers, I’m so passionate about this topic I plan to do a week’s worth of posts over on the Fear of Writing blog on various aspects of it.

    I encourage my regular writers over at MT not to slide into the paralysis of over-editing their piece but to send it to me instead. If it needs more editing, I can suggest the changes based on a more objective view of the piece than the writer has. If it doesn’t need more editing, then we’ve saved it from having the juice squeezed out of it.

    It doesn’t surprise me at all that you won a contest based on something you didn’t have time to mess with. Not that I don’t believe in “first comes the first draft and later the editing.” I think the trouble happens with that P word you mentioned. one P word can cancel out another.

    (Perfectionism + copious editing = Passion . . . NOT.)


    1. Readers, Milli’s blog has lots of resources on the fear of writing, and it’s based on a book she wrote by the same name (which is sitting to my left right now on my bookshelf). Both are worth checking out.

      I just noted that the piece I’ve been mucking with has now been accepted as well, I just had to submit it. I know, however, that my editing can be like the student who keeps changing the circled answers on a standardized test; sometimes it’s better to go with the first answer.


      1. Yippee on getting your essay accepted! I know you’ll let us know where we can read that when it hits the cyber-streets.

        Yeah, that other pesky step. Taking it to the streets.

        (Uh-oh, I feel a Doobie Bros. moment coming on. Save me!)


  2. I have definitely fallen into this trap numerous times (although not to the extreme of missing pumpkin pie by the fire!), but I actually have a pretty good handle on it now.

    The thing is with writing, there are an infinite number of variations. At some point, i just choose and say “Close enough.” Not every piece will be great and some will downright suck. I accept that, I guess. I work in an extremely forgiving medium, though…the blog. I can always go back in and tweak later.

    This really goes back to the theme of revealing yourself and letting others really see and know you. I compare sharing writing or any kind of creative work to being naked in Times Square. It requires a bit of audacity, for sure!

    Irony…I have so much to say on this topic that I’ve been writing and rewriting and deleting just on this comment! Maybe I don’t have this under control after all! Okay, I’m gonna let ‘er rip now…

    First, though, I have to say your tags are getting interesting. In addition to bacon, I see you now have Great Pumpkin, LOL. Should bring in a lot of traffic next month! 🙂


    1. Hi Sue! You’re right about the theme of revealing myself, something you know I’ve been working on. (It’s the primary task of this semester’s MFA work.) Rejection of a personal essay can seem, well, personal.

      I’m no SEO wizard, but we’ll see what that tag leads to! I think it’s definitely a reference the under-30 crowd might not get, however.


  3. Allow yourself to have the niggling that something feels unfinished (but you can’t put your finger on it) but only one…or two in a novel length. Why? The editor will show you the hole, and your job (as author) is to fill it. It’s much easier to submit when you know the editor is there to show you the holes where it’s in your mind but didn’t QUITE make it to the keyboard.

    Sometimes you know the hole is there, but since the human brain has the amazing and infuriating ability to complete broken images, you can’t see the hole without a second person coming in cold. Sometimes you don’t even have the inkling it’s there, but chances are, there is one somewhere, no matter how minor it might be.

    Good luck in the contest! I’m sure you’ll WOW them.



    1. Hi Brenna, great to have you here! Everyone, this is one of the authors I cite above.

      I find when I get feedback from my writer’s group or my MFA instructor that those holes I couldn’t see are made clear to me by their impartial eyes. Yes, editors can play that role too. For those of us needing to have it perfect before submitting (i.e., no book contract) a peer is a good bet.


  4. So happy you won the contest, Patrick! Even happier that doing so helped you to reflect on why you’ve been procrastinating sending your writing out. Perfectionism, fear, boy that about sums it up for me, too. But I’ve found that the more work I submit, the less the rejection stings, and the greater my odds for success. Getting published is a little like playing the lottery, except you get to control the odds a bit. Write, revise, submit, repeat. You can’t win if you don’t play!


    1. Hello, Jessica! Everyone, here’s the author who directed me to the contest and started this whole positive train moving down the tracks.

      You’re right that doing it over and over can lessen the sting. You want to talk about real fear? I finished a novel about six years ago, submitted it to ONE agent, he didn’t like the voice (my favorite part) and I shelved the manuscript. I’m keeping it there now, but not out of fear, out of a feeling that I need to focus on creative non-fiction. But I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I had kept sending out queries on that novel.


      1. Maybe you can send out your novel again once your creative non-fiction becomes popular (yup, I said ‘when’ not ‘if’). Or perhaps ‘they’ will be asking you if you have any work ‘in the vault’ and you’ll be able to dust off your novel and send it out into the world sooner rather than later.

        I’m thinkin’ this might be inevitable *smile*


      2. Well, Patrick, maybe fear put the novel manuscript on the shelf initially, but it sounds like you’ve got a real vision for your writing path now (one that is working) and so the novel must wait. Sometimes it’s not fear, but just our gut telling us now is not the time for a particular project. And that’s ok. I agree with Carole, your success is inevitable.


  5. WOW, Patrick. Look at the awards flying in! Congratulations. I suffer the perfectionism syndrome, too. But at some point, I guess – as you recently learned – you just need to SEND IT IN and CALL IT DONE!

    I have to add that the lovely Jessica McCann encouraged me to enter the William Faulkner William Wisdom Writing Competition as well… and I just learned yesterday that my novel in progress was named a semi-finalist. I think there’s something to be said about “just sending it in.” As your interview subject mentions, what’s the worst that can happen? A slammed door here or there? Most definitely worth the risk!


    1. WOW WOW WOW! That’s fantastic, Melissa! From what I’ve read of your writing, even though I’m not familiar with your fiction, I’m not surprised.

      And how about that Jessica McCann, eh? WOW there as well.


  6. A hearty congratulations to you, Patrick for winning that contest; that’s fantastic news. You’re certainly inspiring me to approach my WIPs with that ‘get ‘er done’ ‘tude and just send it out, even if I feel completely uncomfortable, thinking it’s not up to snuff.


    1. Hi Carole Jane, absolutely, you need to send it out. What I’m telling myself right now, however, is that just because I’ve had a bit of success this week doesn’t mean I’ve overcome the paralysis. It’s an ongoing process, like so much in life, right?


      1. I don’t know. You’ve named it. You’ve written about it. You have us all talking about your not-quite paralysis. How could it have the same power over you now? And if it does show up again, put Mr. Bacon to work making it feel very unwelcome!


  7. Kate Arms-Roberts

    Congratulations on both pieces!!

    I have a short story I wrote last year sitting at “Not Quite.” Time for me to give it one more look and submit it. Thanks for the push.


  8. Wow, Patrick, wow. I guess you’re having more than an okay week. Which is just plain awesome. If you tell us someday that you also do everything else like clean the house, cook, help the kids with their homework every night and have lots of lovely date nights with your wife, I’m not going to like you very much anymore. Or, I’m really going to have to reexamine what I’m doing.

    Seriously, I’m very happy for you. It’s nice to see good people doing well.


    1. Thank you, Mari, that’s really kind of you to say. If it’s any consolation, I’m compulsive about “straightening up” but my wife says I seem blind to actual real mess, the stuff that requires cleaning products, etc.A big failure on that front!


  9. Congratulations on the contest! Meanwhile, you’ve inspired me to get off of Google Reader and submit a travel essay for an anthology. I’m “not quite” sure it’s ready, but the deadline is today, so off it goes!

    Perfect post for me to read today.


  10. Congrats on your successes, Patrick. You are an example to all of us to get off our duffs and get our stuff ‘out there’.
    I do suffer from a feeling my novel is never finished. I set deadlines, then go past them. Working on getting over that. It is perfectionism, in my case. Weird, because if you saw my house you’d know right away I’m not a perfectionist!


    1. “Weird, because if you saw my house you’d know right away I’m not a perfectionist!” Love it!

      I have to say, as I mentioned to someone in a comment above about a novel I wrote a few years ago, this problem can be exacerbated by 1,000 when you’re talking about a book-length work, something you’ve spent months or likely years on. It’s a challenge.


  11. Hey congrats on your acceptance, Patrick! I think many of us who have experience as journalists are very deadline oriented. And the thing is, it has to be an external deadline. When I make one up myself I now its not serious so it doesn’t have the same heft. This post reminds me that I’ve recently vowed to dust off some short stories and submit them….


    1. You are so right about needing an external deadline. I guess I’m not an intimidating boss to myself! I’ll be your boss here, Charlotte: “Dust off those stories and get ’em out there!” (Imagine me as the gruff editor from those old Superman or Spider-Man shows…)


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  14. I really relate to this article. Several of my earlier paintings (some of them from MUCH earlier) hang in my house, and recently, every time I pass one, I make a note of how I would tweak it if I let myself rework it. Paintbrush is down…for now… 🙂

    I love Joseph Cornell’s boxes, but even a master like him suffered from the “not quite” paralysis, too. This came from a Joseph Cornell blog describing this phenomenon: “Funny thing: Cornell never thought of anything as “finished” and gallery owners would have to keep him from tinkering with his work during a freakin’ gallery opening…”

    Congrats on tackling this and submitting article #1 to more publications…and getting published!


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