Friday Speak Out!: On Craft: The Perfectionist’s Nightmare

Friday, February 28, 2020
by Mari Coates

I haven’t always been a fiction writer. At one time I toiled over screenplays and scripts for television—all unsold. Screenwriting is demanding and exacting, a complicated puzzle. But I love puzzles, so that aspect of it was a big draw. The hard work—numerous drafts, many false starts—I was willing to undertake for the thrill of stumbling on that perfect solution. I even enrolled at the American Film Institute for two years, hoping to earn an MFA for my efforts.

It was like an addiction—day after day attending classes and writing pages I would then discard as not good enough, until suddenly it was spring of the second year, and I had not completed the first required full-length film script, never mind the second. Panicked, I looked at what I had written that very day—another new beginning, which was pretty much like yesterday’s new beginning—and I threw the newer one out too.

I had spent a lot of money to be at AFI, where I was a full-time student. Read: no job. Was all of that to be wasted? I knew that my efforts, however inadequate I might deem them, would not be rejected; the issue was simply to finish. I briefly considered just quitting, slinking away red-faced with shame, wasting the two years and thousands of dollars I’d already invested. But that was no solution. I wanted the degree I’d been working for.

I leafed through all the beginnings I’d pounded out and gradually realized that, actually? All of them were adequate. Fine, in fact. I picked the one that seemed best that day and started again. I cried as I typed, mourning the failure of this final attempt, regretting my own dearth of talent. After about a week something strange happened: I started getting interested in my character instead of my own misery. I was curious about her predicament. I found myself coming alive to the story that was unfolding in front of me. Despair receded and excitement rose as I observed and listened, wanting to find out what was going to happen.

By the end of the second week, that screenplay was finished—and well received by classmates and teacher. For the second script I seized on the barest idea for a character—an overweight romantic named Art who owned a delicatessen—and, almost out of time, I started following him around too. Most importantly, listening to what he had to say until ten days later I typed “the end.” Neither script made it to the screen, but my writing life was transformed. I had stumbled on what has since been my best writing tool: to look deeply at someone or something—a character, a scene, a situation. To take the focus from myself, my own fears and perfectionism, to observe and listen and let the character and story come to life. The secret to writing is simply to write. May you find joy as you try it for yourself.

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photo by Lynn Shepodd
MARI COATES lives in San Francisco, where, before joining University of California Press as a senior editor, she was an arts writer and theater critic. Her regular column appeared in the SF Weekly with additional profiles and features appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Monthly, Advocate, and other news outlets. Her stories have been published in the literary journals HLLQ and Eclipse, and she is grateful for residencies at I-Park, Ragdale, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods, which allowed her to develop and complete The Pelton Papers, her first novel. She holds degrees from Connecticut College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. 
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Margo Dill said...

Isn't it funny how the secret to writing is to write? I was toiling over some manuscript formatting today and feeling very frustrated about it all. But really, I have almost finished a manuscript and putting the finishing touches on it. So...I am going to choose to find joy!

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