I FINISHED writing my fifth novel this week. It’s a first draft, I hasten to add, and an extremely messy one at that, so I’m not getting overly excited. I know too much about the amount of work that lies ahead of me for that.
I will say this book came more quickly than usual, primarily due to the week I spent at the Tyrone Guthrie artist’s retreat over Easter, writing 30,000 words in six days. (For context, Almost Love, the shortest of my four novels, comes in at 65,000 words.)
That is around five times my usual daily word count so my brain felt a little broken the day I left Annaghmakerrig. What I’ve found interesting in the three weeks since then, as those two little words — The End — began to loom on the horizon, is the realisation that I felt increasingly reluctant to sit at my desk and write.
I slept later in the mornings, checking my phone the moment I woke up rather than meditating, looking for any available distraction.
A few years ago, I would have been critical of this behaviour, seeing it as lazy and self-indulgent, but now I understand the act of procrastination as fear in motion. While I’m in the process of writing this book, there’s still the secret hope that it might be the best thing I’ve ever written; it might sell 20 million copies and win all the awards; this could be the book that changes my life forever.
But when I’m finished and I have to hand the manuscript over to my editor, the real work begins.
I’m faced with my own limitations while simultaneously pushing against them so that I can continue to grow and improve as a writer, and that’s never an entirely comfortable place to be. I want each book to be perfect, and when I realise that it’s not — that, in fact, there was no possibility of it ever being perfect because such a thing doesn’t exist — I have to sit with its flaws and be OK with that.
Julia Cameron says ‘perfectionism is the enemy, not the friend, of creativity’, and this is an issue I’ve struggled with for a long time. When therapists would tell me I was a perfectionist, a common trait in people with eating disorders, I would scoff and say I didn’t do things perfectly enough to be called that. (I know.)
My perfectionism manifested in two ways. The first was a sense of being paralysed — I was so afraid of getting things ‘wrong’, that I simply didn’t try in the first place. I wrote college essays two hours before they were due so I would have a valid excuse for my inevitably terrible grade.
I refused to play drinking games at parties unless I had practiced at home first, for fear that I wouldn’t be able to pick up the rules and everyone would think I was stupid.
The second way the perfectionism revealed itself was in what psychologists would call ‘black or white thinking’. If I wasn’t the thinnest, then I must be fat. If I didn’t come first, I may as well have come last. I couldn’t understand why Pepsi, you know, that multibillion-dollar company, could even bear to remain in operation when they knew they would never overtake Coca-Cola in market value. Perfection was the goal, always.
Now, I can see that my constant drive for perfection was undercut by a persistent fear that I wasn’t good enough. That there was something inherently ‘wrong’ with me. (And why wouldn’t I think that? As I repeated every Sunday at Mass for years: “God, I am not worthy.”)
I thought that unless I was the best, I was unfit for love or acceptance from anyone, let alone from myself. And I found ways of proving that to myself. For a long time, the only men that I was interested in were those who were emotionally unavailable.
ON SOME subconscious level, I sought out people who weren’t capable of giving me love because I believed that being treated badly was all I deserved anyway. It took a lot of work for me to untangle those patterns but even today, I will notice the tendency to self-sabotage if things are going too well in my life.
If I notice that I am making strides with my fitness goals, the urge to skip classes and binge on chocolate begins to rise.
When I feel my boyfriend and I are reaching a new stage of intimacy, I search for a reason to pick a fight. Or, this week, when I am nearly finished my new novel, I find myself procrastinating and the same thoughts come up again — who are you, to think you could be a writer? You’re nothing but a fraud.
In these moments, I try and take a deep breath and remember the words of Marianne Williamson — “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world… We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone.”
Shine your light, my friends. Shine on.
WATCH: I’ve been hearing about Big Mouth, an original animated series on Netflix, for months now, and after watching the first season I can understand why. Dealing with the nightmare that is puberty, it’s filthy and hilarious and brutally frank.
LISTEN: Lizzo just released Cuz I Love You, her first album on a major label. Her voice is incredible, the lyrics are witty and smart, and the songs are bops. I’m hooked.