Did You Say The P Word? by Shari Emerson

Due to my foul up in scheduling ROWer Shari Emerson popped up to help fill the gap with an inspirational post for Round 2.  Let’s give her a warm welcome!


Er, not that one.

The other one.


Yes, I am treating it as a bad word. I’m a barely published poet, with one fiction work in progress. And you know, I love that P-word – Progress. I dislike ‘perfectionism’ so much that from here on out, I am ordering you to think about your work – writing, cooking, painting, castanet playing, Administrative Assisting, cat herding, – whatever it may be – in terms of progress.

And I invite every one of you to defenestrate (oh, look it up. You’ll like it) the other P word. That other P word is destructive, debilitating, defeating, and damning to almost any endeavor.  In fact, I think of Perfection quite like I do another P word – pick-axe. Much as with a pick-axe, Perfectionism is highly useful in trained hands, for appropriate situations – brain surgery, for instance.

Brain surgeons get a pass with their perfectionism because the margin for error is fractional, and the stakes are monstrous. If I ever need a brain surgeon, that doctor better be workin’ the P in his PhD! On the other hand….

A pick-axe, in the wrong hands, for the wrong reasons – eating an ice-cream sundae, perhaps, can only leave us, at best, messy and distraught, and at worst, well, needing a brain surgeon! Before you insist I’m exaggerating: have you ever caught yourself saying to someone else, “If I want anything done right, I have to do it myself!”? And, if you have, have you noticed the emotional fallout? If not, it’s quite something to think about. That is a fine example of perfectionism, used as pick-axe, and that’s barely scratching its destructive power.

Caveat – not everyone is like me (about this, you should be thrilled ;-). It means that you are perhaps not frozen in place at the sight of the guest room you have to organize…by tomorrow. Or, feeling guilty about the workout video you bought but aren’t ever ‘ready’ to use. These examples look like, oh, I don’t know – laziness, cowardice, more laziness…certainly procrastination. And why? Because something overwhelming inside is demanding the room be done ‘the Right way – but there isn’t enough time! Or needs the right water bottle or shoes….you get the idea.  And you know what that ‘something’ is.
Have you set up and re-shuffled story boards, index cards of plot notes, or character sketches – and spent more time than on the actual writing? These are good tools, but if you are feeding more time to the tools than to the story, you are succumbing to perfectionism. It wins in two ways – you waste your time making everything ‘right’, then you are either too tired for the work, or too overwhelmed. And if you haven’t shaken it by the next day, and it’s, perhaps, a tough day, your next days can easily fall toward doubt – about the story, your talent, your drive. Before you laugh this off, consider how you feel if a beta-reader or two doesn’t go for a plot point (or three.) How do you feel about reworking that mess? If perfectionism gets its way, your story can sit there, for a very, very long time. And in the meantime, you punish yourself every time you see the computer or notebook or printout. Those formerly cherished tools have been replaced by a loathsome doppelgänger you cannot bear to see or touch. Welcome to perfectionism. Can you think of a more destructive impediment to writing your story, than to not actually want to look at it?

I mentioned above that I’m merely a beginner; I’m sure more experienced writers have overcome this struggle. With experience, everyone gets more wise to it – you simply know the only thing that’s going to happen if you write is…you’ll up your word count.  For those like me, there’s that occasional wall of fear- of letting yourself down, of not being who or what you thought you were – and it can stop you. But making effort, despite fear, is still progress.  As humans, it is hard to admit that we will have few days of perfection. But it is absolutely delightful that we can always strive for days, weeks, months, and years, of progress.


Shari Emerson is a Minnesota-based poet, artist, and stay-at-home mom. Her weblog, Orchid and Mayhem (www.sharis-orchidandmayhem.blogspot.com) chronicles the (occasional) sheer lunacy of attempting an artistic life while keeping the home-front rolling. Shari is proudly participating in her second Round of Words in 80 Days, which effort has nearly tripled the starting word count on her W.I.P. – a currently nameless novella featuring a plucky heroine, absent antagonists, a misplaced foot, and a four-foot tall hermit with six inches of chest hair. Her poem “Winter, Act 1” was recently published in Dakota County’s 2011 Annual Poetry Contest collection and came thisclose to winning 3rd.



  1. Um, you’ve been looking over my shoulder! I’m fighting the valiant fight now, after years of struggling with the “p” word. A friend in graduate school told me that the only good dissertation was a “done” one; I thought he was out of his mind. No, I was out of mine. Now one of my favorite expressions is: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

    Thanks for such an inspirational post.

  2. 🙂 ‘welcome!

    I think it’s something we all struggle with – maybe only in one part of life, but as it’s ‘the Mother” of Procrastination, it’s worth seeing for what it is! Glad you are back IN your own mind – thanks for sharing!

  3. I defenestrated (yes, one of my favourite words ever!) this particular P word this year and I have never felt more prolific in my writing. It’s so great to just…write, and not worry about how it’s going to look when I go back and brush it up. I’m churning out a lot of things that, at the end of the year, I’ll go back and look through and see which has the most potential, and it should be a real trip.

    This is a great post; thank you! I do, however, postulate on the possibility of my spouting plenty of P-words today!

  4. Great advice. Through ROW80 and other writing challenges, I’m slowly realizing perfectionism does not facilitate a writing career. In fact, the 2 are pretty much incompatible. “As good as you can right now” is what works.

    1. Life oughta be one long education 🙂 Being able to see it that way is a blessing 🙂 Have a marvelously imperfect week!

  5. L.S. – a good vocab is a terrible thing to waste 😉 Potentially postulating on Plenty of P words, eh? Bonus challenge – what can you produce with purloined? 😉

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