Perfectionism & Writing [& OCD Too]

messyYou’d think being a perfectionist would be beneficial for an artist, but I really don’t think that’s true.

(Neither, apparently, does Google: search “artists are perfectionists” and you’ll get the following:

 

For me, being a perfectionist means that writing a book can be a slow form of torture. You see, it takes a long time for a book to even begin to resemble perfection. You have to spend months, even years, sitting uncomfortably in the middle of a mess, working through sloppy drafts and chasing rabbit trails into very disorganized forests.

Or maybe that’s just me.

In any case, it’s a continual lesson in learning to enjoy the process and not just the product. If I only enjoy the product, I will get to be happy about 24 hours out of every three years. This is a journey of embracing uncertainty, letting myself wait in the cold water till I begin to adjust.

And that’s the story of my life with OCD too. Heck, the story of my life, period.

I– a perfectionist, an OCD survivor– want pretty things in pretty boxes with pretty bows on top. I– an artist, an OCD survivor– know that’s not what life looks like. Life is full of doubt and wrong directions, wasted time and imperfect choices. Life is full of discomfort and years and years and years of tolerating discomfort … with the hope there is a pretty thing in a pretty box with a pretty bow at the end. But it is not guaranteed.

So, is art in general– or writing specifically– a difficult career choice for a perfectionist? Heck yes. But it’s fulfilling, worthwhile, hard, dirty, beautiful work– and it is helping me appreciate this fulfilling, worthwhile, hard, dirty, beautiful world.

 

So, you want to be a writer?

I got these great questions from a reader/Twitter pal/friend for her school project, and I thought people might have some interest in reading the responses. Just in case, I’m pasting them below!

1. What do you like most about your job and why?

Hearing from readers who were impacted by what I’ve written is always a highlight. It’s one of the main reasons why I write– in the hope that my stories will resonate with readers and make them think. It’s also fun when you get into a great writing groove and hours fly by like seconds. It’s so satisfying to enjoy what you’ve written.

2. What do you like least about your job and why? (Maybe revising? ūüėõ It’s not very fun!)

The middle part of writing a novel is probably the hardest part. The beginning is fun because you’re charging toward an idea, and the final touches are great too because you’re perfecting everything. But when you’re in the middle, it’s too early to see the finish line– plus, you’re too far past the starting line to easily change course. I can get a little crazy and sad during the middle of writing a novel– for me this is usually drafts two and three.

3. How did you decide to get into the writing field and how did you enter the field? What alternative ways could someone enter the writing field?

I’ve been a storyteller since I could speak and a writer since I learned my letters. I wrote all through junior high and high school, then studied writing in college.

There is no specific requirement to being a writer except to write well. Some people can do that without extensive training. For me, I studied creative writing as an undergraduate student, where I focused mostly on poetry. After college, I took a little break from writing before diving in to writing my first (unpublished) novel. The vast majority of stories about how people got published are the same: write a great book, write a great query letter, secure an agent, and let the agent secure a book deal. I have writer friends who never finished high school, and I have writer friends who have an MFA in writing, so there’s a wide range. It’s critical to spend lots of time reading incredible literature; this is an education in itself!

4. What training would you recommend for someone who wanted to enter this field now? What skills and background are needed to get into this field now?

As I mentioned above, there is no specific education necessary, although many find a college degree in writing very helpful (at least I did!). It helps to be an avid reader and someone with a great imagination. The writers I know are fascinating people who are usually fascinated by the world.

5. What is the salary range for a person in this field? Entry level to top salary? (I know that’s kind of a funky question, particularly for authors!)

When an author gets published traditionally, he or she is given an advance, which is a sum of money paid to the writer from the publisher upfront. The author then tries to “earn out the advance” in royalty sales; after earning out, all the royalties (minus the literary agent’s cut) go to the writer. Advances have an incredible range. One author might get a $5000 advance. One might get $2 million.

6. What personal qualities do you feel are most important in your work and why?

Since I identified as a poet before identifying as a young adult author, it’s really important to me to have great imagery and strong diction in my stories. Characters are of the utmost importance to me, as they are for many or most writers. I find that writers who write contemporary stories sometimes especially rely on characters, since our books have to build their own “magic,” as opposed to, say, a fantasy novel which might have “real” magic in it. Not to discount characterization for ANY writer. It is, in my opinion, the most important part of any great story.

The other things that I like in books (and try to include in mine) are opportunities to learn and encouragement to think.

7. What are the tasks you do in a typical workday? Would you describe them?

I work a day job (as most young writers do) from 8 to 4:30; then I go home, eat dinner and relax a little bit before I retreat into my home office to write. Some days this looks like generating material; some days this looks like revision; some days this is research; some days this is plotting. There are so many parts of writing a book that are not actually writing. Research takes up a lot of my time. My current work in progress takes place on an island; I spent a whole evening researching boats in the Pacific Northwest just so that I could write one convincing paragraph! But it’s worth it. Details matter! I will usually write from about 7-9 pm, although if things are going well, I will keep working till 10, 11, or midnight. I try to get 7-8 hours of sleep or else I screw everything else up. I also keep a process journal while I write too, in which I brainstorm, sketch ideas, plot, and the like.

8. What types of stress do you experience on the job?

EVERY KIND OF STRESS. Will my agent like this? Will my editor like this? Do I like this? Will it sell? Will I make money? Will I earn out my advance? How do I make sure this character changes enough by the end of the book? Will this story matter to people? AM I A FRAUD??

Plus, there’s a fair amount of public speaking, but I don’t mind that. I know a lot of people do though!!

9. What types of people survive and do well in the writing field?

People who persist. I’m not even joking. Many of the writers you know and love and whose books are on your shelves often wrote another book or two that didn’t get published before one finally did. It’s hard to pour yourself into a project for four or five years, only to have it not get an agent … then to turn around and just start a new project. Writers hear a lot of NOs before that one YES changes things.

This also applies to the writing itself. I use the phrase “show up,” and by that, I mean the actual hours of work put into a project. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by a project the size of a novel, and sometimes that fear is crippling. But showing up every day– putting in an hour or two or five of real work– keeps you moving toward your goal. You have to show up and persist in order to succeed at writing.

10. Are resumes important in getting a job? (or I guess query letters? :P)

The query letter is the key to getting a literary agent, and the literary agent is the key to getting a book deal. Query letters are, for novelists, a whole different type of writing. You spend years with a creative hat on, then need to put on a business/marketing hat to write the letter. A good query will only go so far though– the manuscript has to also be solid!

11. What are the opportunities for promotion? (another weird question for a writer, but it was in the book)

This looks different for different writers. “Moving up” might mean selling more books– or getting a higher advance– or going on a book tour– or having your book be optioned for a movie. Every writer has their own idea of personal success. Making the New York Times bestseller list. Getting starred reviews. Being a keynote speaker at a conference. It all depends.

12. Is the field of writing expanding or taking new directions?

I see writers taking tremendous creative risks lately, and I love it. Plus, there is the whole avenue of self-publishing, which is open to anyone now with things like Kindle Direct Publishing. Trends are constantly changing in the world of novels– best not to hop on trends: they will be long over before your book makes it to print.

13. What related occupations could I research?

Being a literary agent or an editor (for a publishing house or freelance. Copyediting. Public relations. Creative writing instructor. On the other side of the spectrum, technical writing. As I mentioned, most new writers work a “day job” in addition to their writing. If you have a degree in English, you have a lot of options you can go; such a degree teaches you to communicate well and think critically, and every employer wants that!

14. Is there anything else about being a writer that would be helpful for me to know?

It is a roller coaster of emotions. It can be a tough field for perfectionists or people who have anxiety. (But not impossible— I have both!) It’s tremendously rewarding. You spend a lot of time alone, more than you might guess. You have to be okay with things being icky and uncertain for long periods of time– but draft after draft after draft, it all comes together.

Thoughts on ERP, Writing, & Uncertainty

Uncertainty.

For so many years, it was my enemy– or so I perceived it, especially because full-blown clinical obsessive-compulsive disorder made me fear and reject uncertainty even more than the average bear. Everything in my life was about pursuing certainty, answers, black & white.

And, of course, I was miserable.

In 2008, I went through the harrowing but ultimately beautiful process of exposure therapy, which took my OCD out at the knees, giving me the bandwidth to live with uncertainty, questions, and all the shades of gray.

It’s only recently that I’ve recognized exposure therapy as the training ground (or maybe even battle ground) that would let me later pursue my dreams of being an author.

A hard truth: writing is full of uncertainty. 

uncertainty2

Not just writingРbut publishing itself too. There is this crazy-making stretch of life in the middle of writing a book that feels both unclear and perpetual. What is this book really about? Who are these characters? Can I do this? Can I finish this? Is this story going to matter to anyone but me? Is this going to even matter to me? Will my writing group like it? Will my agent? My editor? Readers? Will I find success? Will I get another contract?

The writing life is, for many of us (and especially for younger writers), a world in grayscale: a constant state of uncertainty that we have to persist in in order to find any relief or success.

For as many days as I think I’m totally failing at life and writing, I have to remember what it would have been like to be writing and publishing before exposure therapy, back when uncertainty was¬†unbearable. I’m not even sure how it would have been possible to be doing what I’m doing now without exposure therapy laying the groundwork for me to bear the not-knowing, let alone to thrive in it.

“The world doesn’t work that way.” I hear myself and other OCD awareness advocates saying this to sufferers all the time. In context, we mean, “Life inherently is full of uncertainty. You cannot eliminate it.”

The truth of that hits me over and over again in the field of writing.

Exposure therapy was the terrible, grueling practice for the writing life. Uncertainty is rampant; I try to keep my arms open.

 

A Portrait of Uncertainty, Before & After

SONY DSCUncertainty, Before ERP:¬†intolerable agony. Even a sliver of uncertainty would collapse my entire self. It was torture, hell on earth. I didn’t think I could stand it for¬†one more minute. And, in fact, because of that intense pressing need to erase the uncertainty, I’d usually do something to alleviate the ugly anxiety … but compulsions prevent you from realizing that you¬†can live one more minute. And then another. And as the minutes stack up, you start to get used to the cold water. In fact, it stops feeling icy.

Uncertainty After ERP: uncomfortable still,¬†but necessary. These days uncertainty feels like a built-in, expected part of life. It’s no one’s favorite thing to experience, but I experience it much the same way as the general population. It’s not an emergency; it’s just an inconvenience. And because I learned that I could survive– and even thrive– by embracing uncertainty, I actually love it more than most people.

Uncertainty isn’t the enemy. ERP can set you free.
Go to www.jackieleasommers.com/OCD-help for more details.

 

Image credit: Mark Turnauckas

No Shortcuts

When Jeff Bell, spokesperson for the International OCD Foundation, spoke for our OCD Twin Cities event, one of the things he said that really stood out to me was that there are no shortcuts in treating OCD.

Woman and maze

That’s true, or at least it was in my case. I wanted easy answers: for deep theological conversations to solve my problems, or for comfort and reassurance from friends to be enough, for an hour-long conversation with a therapist each week to take away the anxiety, for an easy prescription to fix everything.

I definitely did not want the hard answer: exposure and response prevention therapy.

My psychiatrist didn’t mince words in his description: “It will be hell.”

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life, but one of the most necessary and most rewarding. For me, there was no shortcut to healing, and since I was already living in OCD hell, the best way out was to¬†keep going.

So, believe me, friends: I get it. ERP therapy is hard,¬†so hard. You might think you won’t survive it. You might think your loved ones won’t survive your going through it. You might think it’s sinful or disgusting, and your exposures are probably going to be loathsome and repellent to you.

If you need to, go ahead and look for shortcuts. I know I had to.

But in the end, there were none for me, and I’d only wasted time looking for them.

While experiencing it, ERP was hell. But on the other side? It was my rescue.

 

Is what I fear possible?

uncertaintyAhhh, that’s the big question for those of us who suffer from OCD!

If you ask your friends, they will probably try to reassure you and say no.  This feels good. For ten minutes. Then you want to ask someone again.

If you really want to¬†heal from your OCD, you have to start answering that question with a¬†yes. ¬†Through ERP, my refrain became, “It’s possible but not likely.”

I know you think uncertainty is your enemy. It’s not.

It’s actually your liberator.

For (lots!) more about the ERP therapy that teaches you to accept uncertainty, check out jackieleasommers.com/OCD.

Image credit: Russ Allison Loar

The Darkest Days

artwork  in retro style,  woman and cup of teaThere is a little Caribou Coffee in Long Lake, Minnesota, where I sat one morning since I’d arrived too early to my visit to Orono High School. I stared at my steaming hot cocoa and repeated to myself:¬†You are going to hell.¬†

Swallow that down, I told myself. You are going to hell, and there is nothing you can do to change it. This realization is your eternal reality.

In the car, I’d been listening to “Spirit” by Switchfoot on repeat:¬†I’ve found all that I want, all that I long for, in You.

It was true then. It’s true now. But in those days, it was a truth that I imagined fell on deaf ears.¬†Spirit, come be my joy. ¬†It was the cry of my heart, but I knew I was damned and that joy would be forever inaccessible to me.

I can’t detail exactly how creepy it is become a cardboard person.

To ride the rollercoaster to the deepest depths and then to climb off there.

A reader¬†asked me if I’d ever felt like God wasn’t with me through the storms of my life. ¬†Have I felt that way? Yes, intensely.

But I was wrong.

Praise God I was wrong.

All these years later, God has stormed in, torn off my blindfold, wrapped me in his arms, and repeated truth to me till I came to believe it.

Do I still have moments where I doubt? Yes.

But my anchor holds.

I wrote this to remind myself of the truthРthe truth that no disorder or devil can withhold from me because my God is stronger:

anchor manifesto

The [Beautiful] Paradox of ERP

paradox of ERP2Exposure and response prevention therapy. ERP.

The hardest thing I have ever chosen to do in my life.

And one of the best.

But that’s not actually the paradox I’m talking about. The paradox of ERP that fascinates me most centers around uncertainty.

The whole point of ERP therapy is to teach someone to learn to live with, accept, even embrace uncertainty. ERP actually re-wires the brain to help the OCD sufferer with this. Before I went through ERP, I wanted to know everything with 100% certainty. Anything less would cause intense havoc in my mind, heart, and body. Because of this intense desire to know everything with certainty, I so often felt gobsmacked by uncertainty. I lived as if, without total certainty, I could barely know anything. Doubt pummeled me like a linebacker. My life was ravaged by uncertainty.

But once I went through ERP therapy and learned to accept uncertainty, the bizarre thing is that my confidence returned. I suddenly felt surety and certainty again–¬†after I realized I didn’t need it.

When I demanded 100% certainty, what I ended up with was often something in the 25-40% range. Or lower.

When I abandoned the need for 100% certainty, I ended up in the 90-99% range. Sometimes less, but usually way, way up there.

That’s weird math. Backward logic. A paradox.

One I love.

99% sure,
Post-ERP Jackie

P.S. If the need to know for sure is ruining your life, you need ERP. Read more about it at jackieleasommers.com/OCD.

P.P.S. I’m a follower of Jesus Christ, and I can’t help but be struck by the similarity of this to “Lose your life to gain it.”

Image credit: Nicu Buculei, modified by me

The Dance of Uncertainty & Faith

How do you reconcile the uncertainty inherent in OCD with your faith in God?

I had planned to write an entire blog post about this, but then I remembered that Anne Lamott had already said in just five sentences what would take me a muddy, fumbly, long-winded essay to say, so I will let her quote do its thing:

I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.

I welcome your thoughts.

uncertainty and faith

Image credit: Matthew Smith