So, I’m going to write this with the caveat that anyone who thinks about following my approach should do so with a certain amount of caution and should only continue to do so if it works for them.
So, here goes.
I like to refer to myself as an “A- Student.” What this means is that, in everything I do, I don’t strive for perfection. I want an A, but I only want an A-. It’s never been worth it to me to put in the extra time and effort to achieve an A+. What this means is that sometimes I fall short of that A- and get a B+ and sometimes I do better than I anticipated and get an A.
(Obviously, I’ve been out of school for quite some time now, but I trust that you can apply the same analogy to a work setting. I don’t strive to write a perfect report. I strive to write a damned good report, one that will cover all the bases and not miss anything essential, but if there’s a typo in a footnote on page 10 I’m not going to spiral into despair and wonder why oh why I missed it. I’ll think “darn it, I should’ve seen that.” Then I’ll shrug and move on. But no matter what, I generally write a good report, because when you fall short of damned good you still hit good.)
So, an example of the difference between an A- and an A+ student:
In high school I was friends with someone who was a classic A+ student. This friend of mine would leave school at 3:30 every afternoon, go home and do homework until 10 PM every night. And it paid off. My friend had almost all A+’s and maybe an A here or there. But my friend’s entire life was about studying.
I, on the other hand, carried a similar class load, but lived a very different life. (I studied Spanish, my friend studied French, but we generally had the same classes otherwise.) At 3:30 I went to sports practice and was in practice until 5:30 most nights. I got home at 6 or so, ate dinner, watched TV or played chess with my Dad, and went to bed. I did my homework in the half hour before school, during free periods, and at lunch.
By being willing to settle for an A- in my classes I had to put in about a third of the study time as my friend, which allowed me to play three varsity sports and participate in extracurriculars like Mock Trial and Forensics. (I have never claimed to be cool…)
Now, some would argue that my friend learned more than I did. And I’d probably agree that my friend knew more facts than me. My friend could probably kick my ass at Trivial Pursuit any day of the week. But I think I had a more well-rounded life than my friend and a broader experience base as a result of my choice. And, now, close to twenty years after high school, nobody cares whether I know the exact dates of the American Civil War. (Or if they do, they’re no friend of mine.)
I believe that the information you need to learn will stick with you and that you can let the remainder of the information wash through you. Retain it enough to use it as needed, but don’t let it clutter up your mind. For example, I still know that gravity is 9.8 m/s2. I used it enough in my physics classes that it stuck. But a lot of that other info – gone. Unnecessary.
Now, someone out there is probably going to say that my friend’s dedication meant a better college and therefore a more successful life. Not really. Both my friend and I went to good colleges and have good advanced degrees. And, guess what? It doesn’t matter what your GPA is, the diploma on the wall looks the same…
This is not to say that you should be a C student. (And this is where the “what works for me may not work for you” part comes in.) I was able to get A-‘s and still do all those activities. I realize this isn’t possible for everyone. We all have different strengths and weaknesses.
So, if you CAN get an A+, then maybe consider pulling it back a bit and broadening your horizons instead. Or consider forgiving yourself a bit if you fall short of perfection every once in a while. Perfection is exhausting, even debilitating. So, for those A+ types, breathe every once in a while, but still do enough to get some sort of A.
Now, for someone who struggles to get even a C…I’ll admit I’m not the best person to give advice on this. And in our current educational system where you don’t have much choice in terms of classes (you have to do a certain amount of English and Math, etc.), it’s really hard. What I would say is find what you can do at an A- level and make sure that you have enough room in your life to pursue that.
My boss’s son was having trouble in school a few years back. He was absolutely brilliant at taking things apart and putting them back together. He just intuitively understood “how things work.” But he was terrible in class. He acted up, he was aggressive. In an ideal world, that child would have been allowed to focus most of his energy on mechanics. But it’s not an ideal world, so someone like that boy has a tough road ahead of him.
He’s not going to succeed in a traditional manner. And it’s possible that this will tear him down to the point that he fails to succeed in the one area where he could succeed. To kids like him, I’d have to say that you have to let go of what others want from you and follow what works for you. If that means never getting a high school degree or a college degree, well…
Better in my opinion to find something you can excel at than to try to fit into someone else’s mold and never achieve success.
Of course, probably even better to squeak through with that diploma and focus the rest of your energy on your passion (like putting together car engines) if you can manage it.
So, bringing this back to writing. Allow yourself to send out a story that isn’t perfect. Which is not to say that you should dash off complete crap and send it out. But at some point you have to let go.
The reason I finally sat down and wrote this post was because I saw a post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch yesterday called Perfection and she was talking about how she’s made writers cry in her workshops by telling them to let go of their story and submit it somewhere.
As she says, “Am I telling people to write crap? No. Because the choice isn’t between crap and perfection. Those are false choices.” She says, “When you strive for perfection in your writing, you’re dooming yourself to perpetual failure. When you strive to be the best you can be, you will have a fulfilling life.”
I would probably quibble a bit with her recommendation to “be the best you can be.” I could have been an A+ student in school, but it’s not worth it. So, I would recommend being the best you can be within a reasonable period of time or a reasonable number of passes.
Tell yourself you’ll write the story straight through, edit it twice, send it to Betas for review, edit it two more times and then you’re done. Period. End of story. Send to markets. (Or whatever cycle works for you. But DON’T let yourself get caught up in that A+ loop.)
And if you think your stories are C-level work…figure out why. (I’m never going to tell someone to give up on this writing dream, so I won’t say that.) But ask yourself – Do I have the basic spelling, grammar, and composition skills? Am I connected enough to the work (or am I holding back from writing about the things that would really impact my readers)? Am I writing the types of stories I want to write (or are you writing what you think you should write and are therefore writing flat and uninteresting stories)? Figure it out and fix it. Up your game. But once you do, don’t worry about perfection.
It’s really ok to be good enough and not perfect. I promise.
(And since this was a really long post, my gift to you is a random picture I took in Thailand…enjoy. Oh, and see the world if you can. It’s an awesome place.)