Learning to Drop the Donkey–Is Perfectionism Killing Your Career?
All of us want to do a good job. We want to put our best foot forward. We all say that we want feedback and critique, but deep down, if we are real honest, we want people to love everything we say and do. Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality. We can’t please everyone, and it is easy to fall into a people-pleasing trap that will steal our passion, our art, and our very identity.
I’ve seen this happen time and time again with writers. They rework and rework and rework the first chapter of their novel, trying to make it “perfect”—which is actually code for “making everyone happy.” Here is the thing. Not gonna happen. Ever.
One person will say our book is too wordy. Another wants more description. We add more description and then another person is slashing through, slaughtering every adjective and metaphor.
Lessons from Aesop
I find it interesting that some of my favorite childhood stories were about character issues that I’ve struggled with my entire life. My favorite story Old Man Whickett’s Donkey and was loosely based off one of Aesop’s fables, The Man, The Boy and The Donkey. The story in a nutshell is this.
An old man and his grandson head to market with their donkey carrying bags of grain for sale. A passerby says, “What a fool. Why buy a donkey if you aren’t going to ride him?” In response to the critic, Old Man Whickett and the boy load up and ride the donkey into the next town where another passerby says, “You cruel lazy people. That poor donkey carrying all that weight. You should be ashamed.” So Old Man Whickett and the boy dismount and carry the bags of grain and the donkey (which seriously freaked out the donkey).
Anyway—and I am probably butchering this story, but give me a break, I’ve slept since I was five—Old Man Whickett and the boy keep trying to please everyone who passes and what happens?
The bags of grain burst open and spill all over the road from being moved around so much (and in Aesop’s version the donkey falls in the river and drowns). They never make it to market and all of them are exhausted and half-dead from trying to please everyone.
Moral of the tale? Try to please everyone and we please no one.
The Fine Line of Fools
We have to walk what I will call the Fine Line of Fools. There are two different types of fools. There are fools who plunge ahead and don’t ask for any feedback and ignore anyone who tries to warn there might be a problem. But then there is the other type of fool who can never seem to make up her mind. She keeps changing direction every time someone has an opinion (been there, done that).
All of us are in danger of being one kind of fool or another. While the wise writer is open to critique, she also needs to know when to stand her ground. If she doesn’t learn to stand firm, that’s when the donkey hitches a ride.
I would love to tell you guys I’ve never been either of those fools, but I don’t dig getting struck with lightning.
Perfectionism and People-Pleasing Mask Fear
I have learned through a lot of trial, error and stupidity that perfectionism and people-pleasing really are just an extension of fear. If we get everyone’s opinion about our book, web site, blog, color of fingernail polish, if someone else doesn’t like it, then we don’t have to own it.
“Well, that wasn’t my idea. That was Such and Such’s idea.”
We Can’t Please EVERYONE
I just finished reading my friend, Jenny Milchman’s thriller, Cover of Snow. As an editor, I might have made her turn loose of a few metaphors or similes, but the book was still an awesome read (and I dig flowery prose). In fact, Jenny’s style reminds me a lot of King and Koontz, two staples of my early reading as a teen.
I carried Jenny’s book everywhere with me for four days until I could reach the end. The rest? That’s critique. Still worthy of five stars. The story did what was intended…ENTERTAIN. I put down far more books than I ever finish. Jenny kept me captivated until THE END.
Yet, here was this book I loved and yet when I glanced at the one-star reviews? WTH? Okay, you don’t like a book but there is a real person on the other side of that evisceration.
But it showed me how important it is to just write the story you want to write. Some will wail, “Not enough detail!” Others? “Too much detail!”
I was personally happy that Jenny included so much detail. Being a Texas girl, I had NO IDEA what being trapped in a world of snow and ice might be like. In a sense, she was world-building and for me, it added a lot to the story. Someone who doesn’t even own a coat could GET the story.
Learn to Drop the Donkey
In this new paradigm, all of us need to learn to be leaders and leaders own everything, the good and the bad. That is no easy task, and I have to admit there are times my neck starts hurting and I get this lower back pain and then I realize…I’M CARRYING THE FREAKING DONKEY! DROP THE DONKEY, YOU IDIOT!
We have to be aware that there are jerks and there are also people mean well. Humans offer constructive criticism to show love, even if there is nothing wrong. I’ve seen perfect works of fiction get eviscerated by well-meaning “helpful” critique groups.
This is why it is critical to really understand the rules of writing, why it is essential to really know what our book is about, and to learn to be confident in our brand. This way, when well-meaning folk offer us poles and twine to tie up the donkey on a sledge, we can say, “No, thanks. I think my donkey can walk.”
So are you carrying the donkey? Do you find him difficult to drop? Do you fall into the trap of carrying your donkey? I know I am a notorious donkey-toter, but getting better every day. What tools, suggestion or advice would you offer to other who struggle with their respective donkeys? What are warning signs that you are carrying a donkey?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
ANNOUNCEMENT: I have a class coming up in a couple weeks, Creating Conflict and Tension on Every Page if you want to learn how to apply these tactics to your writing. Use WANA15 to get 15% off.
NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.