The fear of imperfection is a paralysing thing ~ some musings on the process of “settling”

The fear of imperfection is a paralysing thing ~ some musings on the process of “settling”

I’ve been stuck so long I thought I might begin to fossilise in the crevice between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps I have. Imagine me stretching and cracking and shedding lots of gravel as I move slowly into the light, a troll restored to pre-dawn mobility. Now to find a bridge to hide under and wait for billy-goats.

Where was I?

Oh yes.

A couple of years ago, I started doing a paperback copy of Square Peg. After the first proof copies arrived, I gave up. Analysing it now, I can see why I gave up. It ties in with my love-hate-love-loathe affair with books and especially book-shops. In the last few years I have walked round most bookshops in almost physical pain. Some of the pain is sheer angst and anger that my books will never be on the shelves, but once we get past that little matter, the pain is harder to pin down. Books are exquisite things. Truly. Even if you never open it, a new book is a joy to behold; the paper, the colours, the very scent.. all delightful. But I’ve had a sort of recoil: it’s all too much these days. In a bid to woo (woo, woo!) potential readers, publishers have gone to extraordinary lengths to impress. Shelves and tables in Waterstones are like courtship dances of myriad birds of paradise made paper. They dazzle, they en-trance, they entice… and then I sicken. What about the words inside? The blurbs do the same: blind you with careful and clever constructions, teasing and dancing with your love of intrigue and the promise of losing yourself in another world.

And I find myself withdrawing like an anemone, springing my tentacles back into my being, and feeling oddly stung and put off. I almost yearn for the Zen-like simplicity of the old Penguin classics, Spartan and uncompromising. I don’t buy books very often in person these days; when I do, it’s usually from our very excellent Book Hive in Norwich, or the book shop in Diss, and it’s often non-fiction and often poetry. I am bewildered by the choices on offer, and the creeping sense of being bamboozled into parting with hard earned cash for novels that nearly always leave me disappointed. It’s the same online, too: everywhere you look, someone is flashing you their books, bright, beautifully designed and presented, begging you to take them, take them NOW.

And I knew in my heart of hearts I cannot compete. I cannot compete with those book-birds of paradise gracing the front tables in Waterstones, clad in their wrappers embossed with gold ink and perpetual promise. I cannot compete with the array of books online, perfectly presented, designed, advertised and endorsed to the hilt with a thousand glowing reviews and (because everyone suspects ALL five stars) a smattering of 3s and 2s and a single one star (which we all know is malicious, don’t we?) I cannot make my books look like those; I do not have the resources, either in terms of skills or of money to hire those skills, and so I gave up.

Some might read that and think, buck up, stop whining. To them I would say… well, I won’t say what I would say. It would be rude.

I could not proceed because I could not emulate the perfection on display and so felt I could go no further. When I began publishing, it was OK to be a little home-made about it all. But in the six years since then, everything has become alarmingly “professional”. One is exhorted not to let the side (i.e. other indie writers) down by being less than slick in your quest to be as good as the traditional publishing industry. It’s even made me sometimes wish I actually had a publishing deal so that I could step away from the other side of being a writer. But the memory of how appallingly ill sending in submissions made me in the past, stops me going there again. I’m hanging on to the last shreds of sanity and dignity as it is.

So, today, I tackled that paperback again. I fiddled and messed and waited and fiddled some more, and right now I am waiting for an email saying the cover is approved. It’s not going to look like one of those astonishing book-birds on show in Waterstones, but it looks nice. It works. And moreover, even though I sell very few paperbacks, it needs to be out there, even if no-one ever buys it.

I also wrestled the new book almost to the point of conquering it, and making it ready to start the process of uploading, first to Createspace and a paperback version. There’s a few more bits to do, and I’ve had a very kind offer of some words of praise to put on the back too, from another author I respect greatly (once she’s had a chance to read it and decide whether she does want to endorse it, that is. I’m cool if she decides not to, after all). Little Gidding Girl is all about settling, too, of realising that what you have is pretty damned excellent, and that all the other paths you might have walked may not have been the sunlit, joy-filled ones you imagine them to be.

People speak of “settling” as if it is a bad thing, but it’s not. Sometimes it’s the only way forward, to accept things as they are and work with them, because solid reality is something one can live with, and work on, whereas dreams and moonshine and unrealistic ambitions keep you moon-struck and paralysed. It’s been my fear of imperfection that’s kept me locked in this glacier-like stasis, locked like a flattened mammoth stunned by a wall of ice; the fear of being ridiculed for the odd typo, for less-than-stunning covers, for daring to be a tiny bit rough around the edges and thereby tainting others by my lack of care. Someone, somewhere, will always find a comma out of place and throw the book at a wall. Every traditionally published book I have bought in the last ten years has had at least one little issue, be it typo or rogue apostrophe. In the end, my only way to break out of my crevice in the rock is to admit: I’m not perfect, I’m never going to be perfect and neither are my books.

So. Watch this space.

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30 thoughts on “The fear of imperfection is a paralysing thing ~ some musings on the process of “settling”

  1. I too get dazzled by all the books on show – and feel a pang – of envy probably. I like to look and touch, read the back and front, open and see. Cost of books here in South Africa is prohibitive. The library is a good place to read what I want, when I have the time to visit it. Createspace is helpful Viv … and of course they will print your book as well. Good luck with Little Gidding Girl, and may you feel settled when all is up and going …

    • Our big chain of bookstores (as mentioned above; other stores are available) does a range of what it calls Beautiful Books, which basically are classics repackaged in very lovely bindings and sold for at least double what a simple paperback goes for, and I find myself yearning to own them…which is silly.
      I live two doors down from the library but only joined last year (having lived here for 4 years) and I find it…depressing in its choice of books. I only joined to get an inter-library loan for a book I couldn’t afford!

  2. Viv, I share a lot of your feelings about those intimidating, dazzling displays in Waterstones, and the impossibility of perfection, or of matching up to the supposed “professionalism” of the commercial book publishing industry. I have only just released a new book using Createspace for which the cover emulates the stark simplicity of the Penguin Classics. But who knows what will happen? You are right, too, about the “emperor’s new clothes syndrome” of all those blurbs and the reality of what lies between the covers. I have greatly enjoyed those of your books I have already read – “Away with the Fairies” and “Square Peg” I found fascinating, and I am right now reading your book on Depression. Good luck with your new book. Remember some words from Adrian Plass: “If things fall apart, pick up the pieces and carry on. Don’t despair. There are strange things going on behind the scenes.”

    • I’m not sure I’d agree with Plass on this. There might be strange things going on behind the scenes but I have seldom felt them to be benign!

  3. Really good to write this Vivienne, it harmonises with a lot of what I both think and experience (though of course there are also places where I feel differently to you, it would be a strange to be 100% the same!) and you rightly put your finger on the (over?) professionalism and its (sad necessity and) upping of the stakes for Indie authors. The Indie world can be as hard as the other world, and maybe it might look at itself a little, and ask, What was the amazing freedom and beautiful difference we began with here? Are we still on the right road? I struggle like you with feelings of overwhelm-ness when I go into bookshops, and also degree of annoyance and disappointment with some of the books which while having lovely covers and awesome blurb turn out to be less … whatever it is which is wonderful about a story. As some say, ‘admiring your honesty’ here, since honesty is a good quality, and keeps us all on our toes in a world where PR has become so important. Thank you, and all very best with Little Gidding Girl – I hope to be reading it sooner rather than later!

    • “What was the amazing freedom and beautiful difference we began with here?”
      It’s a grand example of morphic resonance that the indie publishing model has now frozen in something very like the traditional model.

  4. Echo all of this. You know I do! Just to solidify the uphill task of being an independent and what is stacked against you/me/all of us. When I was an ingenue in the wolfpack of social mores and trying to decide in what ways I could ‘pay forward’ ( lacking ‘how to’ or ‘how I made it’ skills) I decided that reviewing difficult-to-genre books was one contribution I could make.

    Accordingly I bought BOUGHT every book so that the question of gifting a review was not in doubt. If I did not feel I could enthuse I had at least swelled a small coffer. So I reviewed those that really grabbed me and because they were all unlike any other and had to me evaluated on their own merits I did award five stars, believing that it would help the book and the author.

    That has, I now discover, been my undoing. I am rated an unreliable reviewer and my last was refused by Amazon. Unless one sprinkles two and three stars one is obviously being ‘paid’ in some form. I have no time to read two star books, let alone take the time to say why! Jane Friedman recently offered a link to an algorithm-evaluating site and suggested searching one’s own books to see. Apparently both my books with rave reviews are untrustworthy! I then searched The Bet and found the same! There are not enough luke warm reviews, not enough peremptory short reviews etc In my case my books bought after talks, fairs were not ‘verified purchases’! Amazon only respects those bought from it!

    So much for the indie friendly store!

    So I cannot help any author in this way again. You would think that the reading and reviewing of unusual books would be valued by Amazon who stands to make money from such work, uphill for both Author and reader on some occasions. I did consider writing to Amazon ( may still) but probably at definitive axe risk to anything I might attempt in the future.

    Increasingly I am thinking that publishing on line in dedicated sites is the only way for those of us hoping to find readers. So the strife for perfection ( to get back to your central thrust) can be assessed purely from responses garnered and not subject to any filter from any source.

    But I DO understand what you are saying, and how you feel.

    • That’s depressing news about reviews. I seldom review books that merit poor stars, but I have done a few 1, 2 and 3 star reviews, but they were generally either missold (one book was a short essay on something Jungian and the rest of the content a trailer/taster for a fantasy novel!) or a book I feel needs a counter point to the blind adoration of some (The Shack, *cough cough*) and sometimes for music as well.
      By the way, we’re considering a short camping trip in April and may be coming west…(it all depends on weather forecasts)

  5. The thing with perfection (and near perfection) is that it is a chilly, harsh goal, worse to achieve than not. Good enough is >good enough<, it has a human warmth that perfection lacks. It is said that the beauty of something is because of it's flaws, not despite them.

  6. I think we all feel like that at some stage – I know I’ve held off self-publishing my work until it’s absolutely as perfect as I can make it. But I will also hold onto your closing thoughts that it’s rare to read even a traditionally published book without noticing at least a couple of types or formatting error along the way – especially on a Kindle edition… So I derive a lot of comfort from that:).

  7. I write for myself, first of all, challenged by the process towards perfection, not of this world.
    Often when a work is presented as perfect its charm dissipates, there’s a coldness to it, no crack for the light. I guess this relates to what you call … alarmingly “professional” …

  8. “Even if you never open it, a new book is a joy to behold; the paper, the colours, the very scent.. all delightful”.

    I have a book fetish. So I rejoiced when reading this sentence. Writing so many book reviews for my Mindfunda site with not much revenue to show for it. And the (literal) dreams of books that I have written and published. I even had a dream friend tell me he had dreamed of a book that i published.

    Thank you Viv for your blog and your post! And I hope every once in a while you will visit one of my book reviews and recognise that inner burning fever to finally get up the guts to put a decent proposal to a publishing company 😉

    • Books, yeah. The Library of Fragrance does a perfume called Paperback which does nicely capture the scent.
      I’ll keep an eye open for your reviews, but considering that putting together proposals and submissions literally almost killed me once (truly, and a long and difficult story), I’ll keep my courage for other things that are more rewarding than bashing my head against a brick wall; publishing rejected me and I can take the hint.

  9. Hi Viv, What a relief to read something real! I found myself nodding throughout, for all of what you’ve written about makes sense to mind, body, spirit and soul. With myself, I feel I “settled” long before I chose to self-publish. Sometime around my 50th birthday I knew I had to gather all my poems together for a book, and so I did. All of them, even the bad ones were included because without them, especially them, the book wouldn’t and couldn’t represent the first half (or longer!) of my life. Perfect, shortened or selected work wasn’t required.

    As a poet I feel I have no choice in the matter, I have to write. Yet in order to be more than a name on my family tree, and pass on who I was, and the joys and struggles of my Soul whilst here, a book and blog seem the obvious choice. Apart from friends, family, few poets and other bloggers no one’s interested in my work … and yet, that’s more than enough, because as you say, “getting it out there” out of our authentic selves is the most important, beautiful and liberating task. Good luck with your latest soul missive. Blessings, Deborah.

    • Many thanks. Poetry is possibly the hardest of all, to sell or to even interest people in and yet it can and does change lives. Good luck with your work too.

  10. I get it. I’ve had to admit that my topics–grief, mythology, dreams, inner reflections–will never put my book on the big tables in the airport bookshops. Even though I didn’t self-publish, there are no guarantees on the financial side. And I’m never going to “make something of myself” in the way my mother (and the “mother in me”) had in mind. Along with others in this thread, I must write. I have to explore dreams and keep revealing the inner workings of my own psyche. I’m still wrestling with perfectionism, but see the enemy and understand how it ruins self-confidence and inner peace. It helps to know you’re wrestling and winning. Wishing you the joy of holding new freshly unwrapped books in your waiting hands.

  11. Many, many thanks to you for braving to write this essay. This is where I am right now. This has stalled my work. As my writing buddies would tell you, I suffer from an inability to stop editing. I love your imagery of books as courting birds! How true it is, as we pander for the eyes of new readers. Oh the angst we put ourselves through!

    It’s so nice for me to hear that someone else out there worries and tweaks endlessly like I do. That they sometimes have thoughts of just chucking the whole mess. Makes me feel less weak. But its even better to hear that you haven’t chucked it, but have persevered. Your art is now out there to be discovered. Hopefully in a few months my new works will join yours! Thank you. ❤

    • Thank you. I think some folks interpret this as, “Oh I’ll just chuck any old guff out there; I don’t care!” but it isn’t like that at all. I confess I come within moments of chucking it all in quite frequently, and the last six years I have been so deep in the darkness it’s hard to remember what light is.
      Anyway, all the very best with your works too. x

  12. Reblogged this on Stacy Bennett and commented:
    Vivienne Tuffnell gives us a few words about the hidden worries of trying to make good art in such a flashy society. This well-written article resonates so strongly with me and maybe with you too.

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