I wrote a good book but see nothing but the flaws in it

Why am I such a perfectionist? It's driving me crazy.

By Cary Tennis
Published January 9, 2007 9:36AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

This letter is probably going to sound trivial compared to many of the issues you deal with in your column. But as you're a writer, I'm hoping you can relate.

I'm a fellow journalist who recently became an author. My book has been reviewed favorably, two college professors have added it to their supplemental reading lists, and several readers have written to me to express how much the book has helped them. And I am most grateful for their praise.

So how come I keep kicking myself for all the ways in which I feel the book is less than "perfect"? Is this just something all writers inevitably do? Am I like the musician who cannot fully enjoy his own music because every time he listens to it he hears some imperfection?

What I perceive as my literary shortcomings are really eating at me. It's almost an obsession now. Why do I keep beating myself up inside? In daily journalism, I write a story and then quickly move on to the next. So why can't I move on here? How can I free my mind to just accept that what's done is done and has actually been very positively received? Yes, I know I'm being too hard on myself. But how do I stop these recurring thoughts?

Sincerely,

Trying Not to Be Such a Damn Perfectionist

Dear Perfectionist,

Since I am at present marooned in the hamlet of Cinco Bayou in the panhandle of Florida, my flight rained out, bereft of my accustomed powers of concentration due to the unwelcome interruption of my strict routine, I will address this as well as, by example, provide a short little country western song.

Because, of course, like many other writers, I hate myself. I just fucking hate myself. I hate my writing. I hate my writing. I hate my writing. I hate my fucking voice in my head. I hate all the voices in my head. I wish for nothing so much as silence and contentment, but I have to keep talking because I believe if I keep talking I stay alive. If I stop talking, I die. That's how it is. So I hate my fucking self, but I can't stop talking and I can't stop writing and I can't stop these fucking voices from rehashing funerals from my childhood and visions of Christmas dinners, because I think if it stops I'm a dead man. It's all in there all the time hashing itself out. It's a life form. Language is a life form. Language, speech, imagination, it's a parasitic life form that burrows in and takes over.

And of course when I look at what I've written, I hate it. It's a bunch of fucking garbage! So what's new? Am I the only fucking writer who hates himself and hates his writing? Hell no. It's a sport. It's a national anthem. It's a way of life.

It's our way of life.

How do you stop this? Well, how I stopped it -- well, I didn't stop it, but I did some cognitive therapy work and changed the relationship of forces. I bolstered the powers of good that say I'm a good man and I'm doing a valuable thing for the world and I have some inherent worth, and I muted the voices that say I'm a useless fuck. It helps even if I don't completely always believe I'm not a useless fuck. I've told this story a few times. I had all these crazy thoughts. I went to a therapist. He gave me that book, "Feeling Good," by Dr. David Burns, and I did the exercises and so forth and that largely got me over it -- although you do have to keep doing it or you slip back into the "I'm a useless fuck" blues.

As I say, I've written about this several times.

It's good that you state it so succinctly -- "How do I stop these recurring thoughts?"

Yeah, well, as I said, yes, it's nice writing daily, isn't it, because you have an excuse, too. You quit and move on. Me, for instance, today: I don't feel I'm as on it as I sometimes am. I have been attending a wake for my dear Uncle Hall. Wakes, funerals, deaths -- blah blah blah. I'm a little played out. Then we drive an hour to the airport and the flight is canceled. So we drive an hour back. We think we'll go eat at the High Tide. The High Tide is closed. The Bay Cafe is closed. Finally we find this sushi place, Yamato's. We eat but it takes forever. Blah blah blah. Then we try to borrow my other uncle's truck so we can get around to the cottage and back, and to the airport the next day, and it's pouring rain, and my uncle is trying to get some sleep, and where are the goddamned fucking keys to the goddamned fucking truck?

So I guess I'm really just a Southern boy because when I can't write anything I can always write a song, and maybe there's some helpful advice in there too, because you just write every day and move on, but a book messes with your head because you can't just move on. (Wow, that was profound, wasn't it?)

We're tired and beat from driving down from Mobile
Home is still a million miles away
We never should have checked out of the hotel
We're stinky and we need a place to stay

My cousin dropped us off in her Cadillac
Thinking we're not as stupid as we look
She figures we did everything we should have
She figures we would do it by the book

[Refrain]
Where are the keys, where are the keys, where are the keys to the goddamned fucking truck?
Where are the keys, oh where are the keys, oh where are the keys to the goddamned fucking truck?

My cousin figured we were not so stupid
We should have had it written on our shirts
We might be smart in certain situations
But sometimes we're so stupid that it hurts

We should have called the airport before leaving
We should have checked the weather on the news
Wind and fog and rain and slush and hail storms
We've got the canceled flight home airport blues

[Refrain]
Where are the keys, oh where are the keys, oh where are the keys to the goddamned fucking truck?
Where are the keys, oh where are the keys, oh where are the keys to the goddamned fucking truck?

We should have called the airport before leaving
We should have checked the weather on the news
Wind and fog and rain and slush and hail storms
We've got the canceled flight home airport blues

So now on top of everything else I can hate myself for writing bad country songs.

But get that book by David Burns and see if you can't tunnel out from under some of this shit. You'd better, or it'll bury you!

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