I am perfectionist.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from perfect. But it’s a curious word, isn’t it? What does perfect really mean? According to our friend the Internet, being perfect means having all of the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics, or being as good as possible. So as a perfectionist, I am someone who strives for this standard of perfection.
But, I am also lazy.
Not necessarily in the traditional sense—although I do love an entire day spent in pajamas here and there. I guess it’s more of an active laziness; a purposeful laziness. I don’t mind waiting until the last minute to do something, usually because I strategically made that decision with all of my other obligations in mind.
In my opinion, perfect is a very ambiguous term. Who’s to say what perfect means to me? At some point in my life, I decided what it means to be perfect, and ever since then I have been trying to achieve that level of fulfillment. Sometimes this means making sure my handwriting is not slanted or messy (usually erasing one-too-many times) or retaking a photo to avoid a slight shadow in the corner. But a lot of the time this means working tirelessly on a piece of writing until I feel it matches the vision I initially had in my head. So there’s my answer: perfect means achieving the expectation that I created for myself.
Let’s not forget about my laziness, though. Thankfully, I can confidently say that I now take pride in this aspect of my character, but this was not always the case.
It didn’t hit me until earlier this semester in my English class. We were instructed to complete an in-class writing assignment and as the rest of the class wrote furiously, I was stuck on my first sentence. By the end of the ten-minute period, I had a couple of sentences that were far from cohesive, while others had entire paragraphs with a beginning, middle, and end. I was just thankful that I wasn’t forced to read my joke-of-a-paragraph out loud. After discussing some key writing techniques and skills, our assignment for next class was to revise what we had written in class. For me, this meant writing the assignment over again. And I couldn’t help but think, why couldn’t I complete this assignment? Am I just lazy when it comes to my writing?
I couldn’t get that idea out of my head: lazy. Me? No way. Well, maybe?
As far as I can tell, the perfectionist in me—usually the part of me responsible for creating some of my proudest work—can also hold me back. When I’m told to sit down and write, I cannot create something meaningful without a lot of time to think and plan out exactly what I want to say. Often times, this materializes in a type of laziness that allows me the time I need to decide what type of perfection I want a given piece of writing to achieve.
So, maybe I’m lazy because I’m a perfectionist.
I started college like most eighteen-year-olds do: confused. Unsure of my true passions that I knew I was supposed to discover over the next four years, I enrolled in a variety of classes and faced each assignment and exam head-on. As the first few semesters passed and I finally got the hang of college-level classes and the college lifestyle, something was still missing. For as long as I could remember my relationship with school was a give-and-take. Give: all of my effort in order to be correct, accurate, and maybe even the best, maybe even perfect. Take: the grade and validation of my intelligence. But college didn’t provide this simple exchange. I gave everything I had, but didn’t feel the same satisfaction when I received my grades—probably because I encountered some that did not match my definition of perfection.
It didn’t happen overnight, and I probably couldn’t even pinpoint the exact moment that I stopped holding myself to that same standard of perfection when it came to my academic work, specifically my writing. It wasn’t easy coming to terms with the fact that I may need to create a new meaning of perfect. But what did change was the extent to which I let arbitrary measures of my intelligence and creativity define me. There is more to my writing than the grade I receive for it, just as there is more to me than someone who likes everything to be in its place, yet will put off taking my car to the shop for weeks.
I can’t help but believe that writing has expanded more than just my abilities to put words on a page in a meaningful way. I am different than that eighteen-year-old girl who was too scared to push the limits on an assignment, or who completed her school work for no other reason than to do what was expected of her. But I also think of myself differently. I am okay with the fact that I can be lazy sometimes. And I know that “perfect” does not always mean the same thing. Has writing allowed me to do this?
The first time I defined myself as a writer was a little over two years ago. This was a big step for me. For some reason, calling myself a writer felt like something that I didn’t deserve the right to do. Or, if I did begin to believe in this label, who’s to say anyone else would too? Our first essay in Writing 220: Introduction to the Minor in Writing allowed me to make that initial jump into finally believing I was a writer. The first assignment was a “Why I Write” essay, in which we were to explore the reasons behind our interest in writing. The prompt had essentially no restrictions—we were just supposed to write about why we write.
I think this was the first time I experienced Writer’s High—a phrase I created to describe the rush of adrenaline and excitement that I experience while writing something that is especially important to me. After a typically rough start to a piece of writing—usually involving too much planning and too little writing—I (hopefully) hit a moment of true clarity, whether that be about what I want to write or how I may think differently about the world because of what I’m writing. For my “Why I Write” essay, feeling that exhilaration, which I now know is the feeling of true passion and enthusiasm, was extremely rewarding. And it was the first time that I realized that deciding that something I write is “perfect” can (and should) occur before I turn it in or allow anyone else to read what I have to say. And in the end, being able to formally call myself a writer was the ultimate achievement. I don’t think I could even tell you the grade I received on this essay—it just didn’t matter.
Although I tend to try to keep control of everything, I appreciate this open-ended adventure that I am embarking on as a writer. I write to explore the areas between right and wrong, yes or no, this shade or that shade. And through my writing I have ultimately taken something that I was required to do and allowed it to become something that I am passionate about.
And the rest is history. Just kidding.
So now I am officially a writer—at least in my mind. This feeling of fulfillment carried me through the rest of Writing 220, and later helped me produce a piece of writing I was proud of. For our second project we were supposed to repurpose an old piece of writing. I decided to transform a cover letter into a mock article for The New Yorker, as a way to express my strong opinions about the absurdity of cover letters and the internship and job application process.
The feeling of being rejected from a job is essentially a mark of imperfection. When I did not meet all of the qualifications for a particular internship, I did not match that company’s conception of perfect. And the worst part was, they only had my cover letter to base this decision on. This experience opened my eyes to an issue that I couldn’t get off my mind. I used this assignment to release these feelings and hopefully free myself from the self-doubt that the job-hunt process can lead to. This was huge for me. I was finally empowered to write about something I really cared about, something I was angry about, and those feelings helped create a powerful piece of writing. One of my favorite parts of this piece was when I referenced all of the adjectives that I used to describe myself in the cover letter:
Take myself as an example. If you don’t know me, I apparently describe myself as someone with strong communication skills and an excellent ability to connect with and understand others. Don’t forget my organization and time-management skills and high emotional intelligence. Did I mention I have the drive to succeed? If by some miracle you are not already nauseous from learning about “me,” I salute you.
I can be a pretty sarcastic person. The fact that I was able to express this aspect of my personality through a piece of writing about cover letters felt like a pretty awesome accomplishment. It seems obvious that we should be able to write ourselves onto the page—whether directly or through subtle uses of tone and style—but two years ago I wasn’t as sure of this fact. Writing this mock article showed me how any piece of writing that I create, even if I do not write about my personal experiences, is reflective of who I am as a person.
But this year, as a senior in college, I finally have the opportunity to write about myself—my personal experiences, opinions, and beliefs—as an actual requirement for a class. Before this semester I don’t think I could have told you what creative nonfiction writing is, but after beginning English 325: Art of the Essay I have come to realize that this is my favorite type of writing. If you would have asked me a year ago if I would ever write a paper about my beloved cabbage patch doll, Julie, I would have laughed in your face.
Call me crazy for saying that an inanimate object had the power to teach me about independence and the importance of being vulnerable, but without Julie I wouldn’t be able to appreciate what I have without knowing what it means to feel loss. I wouldn’t have learned what it meant to care for something other than myself at such a young age. I wouldn’t know who is worthy of knowing these personal details about myself. I wouldn’t even be questioning my independence, which I now know is a very humbling experience.
English 325 provided the environment I needed to be able to write an effective—not to mention extremely meaningful—piece about my doll that I have had since I was a year old. I was extremely honest in this essay, and in the end I am proud of my ability to reveal so much personal information about myself to a room full of twenty strangers. But it was not an easy process. After basically throwing a rough draft onto the page, my essay was up for full-class workshop. I appreciated the feedback and suggestions that my classmates provided, but over the next two weeks until the final draft was due, I couldn’t get myself to even glance at my essay again.
Call me lazy (I don’t blame you), but I just needed more time. I needed time to truly reflect on this object in my life, and somehow figure out why it was worth writing about. I didn’t want to force myself to sit down and type, I wanted to be walking down the street, minding my own business, when my next moment of genius hit me. Luckily, something did eventually click in my mind and I was able to add the missing element that my essay needed. Was I writing the final draft the night before it was due? Of course. But was I happy to be doing that rather than forcing the thoughts out of my head? Again, of course.
Over the past three years, I have learned more about myself as a writer than about writing as an academic subject. As a writer, I am able to be both a perfectionist and lazy. Even better, I now realize that I am lazy because I am a perfectionist. I can find clarity through spending two hours on a single paragraph, or by spending five hours thinking about anything other than a particular piece of writing. And to me, feeling confident in a piece of writing—regardless of the impending grade or what anyone else thinks—is the ultimate mark of perfection.