The Perfect Trap

Perfection is a trap. My first blog post, What False Comfort Zone Are You In? shared how my recognizing that trap had enabled me to go forward. Well, here I am again. Caught up in the perfect trap.
Framed Rebar by BY-YOUR-⌘, Flickr CC  (I mistakenly attributed the feature photo to the wrong photographer.  Corrected at 0621 on July 23, 2012)

Perfection is a trap. My first blog post, What False Comfort Zone Are You In? shared how my recognizing that trap had enabled me to go forward. Well, here I am again, caught up in the perfect trap.

My day job requires that I am certified in PALS (pediatric advanced life support.) I have to re-certify every two years.  You’d think I’d be used to it by now. I’m not.

To pass this certification one must understand the body’s physiologic response to various medical crises. You must pass a written test AND a re-enactment of several different crises.

Understand that these are things I have rarely had to do in the course of my career (and it ain’t short!). Some of the situations and activities I must re-enact are beyond my scope of practice.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are good and reasonable reasons why I need to know these things. Many of my patients have medical conditions that are serious and can become life-threatening if not treated promptly and correctly. Not to mention that within the department are nurses who work in the recovery room where they must and DO recognize these medical crises. They work hand-in-hand with advanced nurse practitioners, respiratory therapists, and many other experts.

It’s performance anxiety, I tell myself. I am an introvert. Performing in front of others is not a natural nor comfortable state. In reality, I’m caught in a trap: seeking perfection. I so desperately want to know it all so that I can do it right that I needlessly saddle myself with much more work than is necessary.

Defining Perfectionism

Ah, perfectionism what is it, really? According to it is “a personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything else.” Well, what’s wrong with that?  Perfectionism magnifies the importance of achieving that goal. Rationally, we know that perfect isn’t really possible. But we are going to kill ourselves to make it as perfect as possible. And a single-mindedness on achieving perfection can lead to procrastination (it’ll never be perfect so why try?), bullying (my way or the highway), and low self-esteem (I can’t ever get it right).

At its root, perfectionism often is acquired from parents who were perfectionists, or from parents who were hyper-critical or didn’t give you any feedback at all.  It could be the result of a lack of self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy. It can also very simply be fear of failure.

What perfectionist need to learn is that perfectionism is not the same as the pursuit of excellence.

So how does one cure perfectionism?

Get Out of the Trap

First, if your perfectionism is so severe that it has damaged your relationships with others, consider seeking professional help. If you’re like me and simply drive yourself crazy with your perfectionism, here are some steps you might try.

  • Admit you are a perfectionist. Go ahead. Face the mirror and admit it.
  • What do you want to achieve? (by being perfect or by making this one thing perfect) Write down your answer so you can look at it objectively.
  • Ask yourself what will happen if you DON’T achieve your goal? Make a list of all the negatives and the positives.
  • What will happen if you DO achieve your goal? Who will notice? Write down your answer.
  • Make the decision to change. Mirror time again. Look yourself in the eye.
  • Take one thing at a time. Choose one thing to ‘get wrong.’ Allow yourself to feel how that feels. Write down what happened as a result of doing it ‘wrong.’
  • Forgive yourself for not being perfect. It’s not a perfect world.
  • Give yourself permission to strive for excellence without being perfect

Confession Time! Have you been caught in the perfect trap? What have you done to overcome it? I’d love to hear your stories, even if they aren’t perfect. 

Celebrating Daydreams and Heroes

The arts are so much more than mere entertainment. Whether it is a painting, a sculpture, dance, theater, a video, music, or words in a book, a poem, a song, the arts speak to us on an emotional level. The arts bring joy, inspiration, comfort us during sorry, and are often linked to cherished memories. Today’s music selections are an artistic vehicle celebrating daydreams and heroes. Won’t you join me?

Daydream Believer by The Monkeys

While this song’s lyrics don’t make a specific point, it’s about starting the day. What can it mean to a daydream believer? Start the day affirming your daydreams, be a daydream believer.

Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves

Talk about evoking an emotional response. Yeah, it’s a love song, and but if you take it in a broader sense it can be a celebration of any daydream that makes you feel alive. This song makes me want to move. Walking on sunshine feels good.

The Climb by Miley Cyrus

Another song about dreams. It reminds us that our struggle is all about trying. It’s not about how fast we get there. It’s not about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s about the climb.

Hero by Mariah Carey

The lyrics to this beautiful song reminds us all that we all feel down sometimes. All we have to do is hold on, there will be a tomorrow. And when you cast your fears aside, look inside you and be strong, a hero lies in you.

No matter its form, art reaches into our souls. Don’t forget to take time to enjoy your favorite form of art.

We can all be Daydream Believers who walk on sunshine as we climb to find the hero within. Reach for your dreams. You can do it.

If you aren’t an artist or can’t connect with this selection, read “Believe.” We are all heroes–everyday.

I hope this little interlude celebrating daydreams and heroes inspired you a bit today. It did me.

Facing the Mind-Killer: Fear

I am deathly afraid of heights. I can charge through my fear and do heights if I have to. But only if I have a solid piece of ground or a solid, secure ladder beneath me. Alas, though I tried to warn my ex a few years back, he insisted we’d have fun visiting one of the local haunted houses. He wanted me to face my mind-killer: fear.Facing the mind-killer:fear is like facing this red danger sign

As with most haunted houses, we waited in line while listening to spooky music. Finally, it was our turn. We walked into a dimly lit room set up like a doctor’s examination room. A recorded voice told us a not-very-original story about how the doctor got involved in grisly experiments, the lights flashed then we were in total darkness. My heart rate went up, just a little. After a moment, emergency lights came on revealing a grisly scene that made me, and the other visitors, giggle nervously. A door opened in front of us and we moved forward. The next room, dimly lit, revealed wax figures in the midst of a gruesome crime. One of the wax figures screamed, eliciting my screams as well (Don’t judge. I wasn’t the only one).

As we followed twists and turns through the dark hallways filled with fake screams, animated wax figures and real costumed people paid to frighten customers, adrenaline drove my heart rate up more. We turned a corner, down a narrow, dimly lit corridor. Then I stepped onto a swinging bridge. I couldn’t see the bottom. There was only a rope ‘handrail.’ Nothing was solid. How high were we? Someone, probably one of the house’s paid characters, began to shake the bridge. I screamed and stopped, holding on for dear life. I could. Not. Move. No amount of coaxing from my ex could loosen my death grip on the rope rails nor motivate my denervated feet. Much to my ex’s chagrin (and the other haunted house visitors’ ire), I had to have the lights on to move forward. They took me out the ‘coward’s door.’

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total oblivion. I must face my fear. Must allow it to pass over me and through me and where it has gone, I must turn the inner eye. Only I will remain.

~Dune, by Frank Herbert.

We all have fears. Big ones, little ones, real ones, and ones blown way out of proportion. Fear is a signal to prepare to FIGHT or RUN. We’d be foolish not to pay attention to our sense of fear if the house were on fire or a burglar was breaking into the house. But what if fear stops you cold? Is it still helpful?

I had planned for the rest of this post to discuss Bob Mayer’s book Write It Forward and how his words about facing fear struck a chord with me. But a series of thunderstorms took out my internet for most of the weekend and kept me off all things electronic. So when my internet was working again this evening I discovered that fear was in the air. Here are a few things I found.

Bob Mayer wrote a guest post (way better than I could) about fear called Fear is a Writer’s Worst Enemy: Attack the Ambush.

I named my doubts and fears Mrs. Darkside in this post.

Did you know that even CEO millionaires like Seth Godin have fears? Millionaire CEOs are interviewed and share a little about facing their fears at with Advice on How to Get Past Your Fear In Business.

But the best message I found in my research about fear is in this Youtube video of a little, fourth-grade girl who is about to make her first ski jump.

You can feel this little girl’s fear at the beginning, but she faced the mind-killer. She was afraid still she realized she didn’t have to be unafraid to do it. Could you feel her triumph after she finished? I love that feeling!

She has inspired me. I’m going after some of my fears, you’ll hear more about them in later posts.

I’d love to hear from you. Have you faced your mind-killer fear? What is it keeping you from doing? What is your strategy for beating that mind-killer: fear?

First Impressions with First Lines

Once upon a time. . .

it was tradition to begin a story with those words. Today, making first impressions with first lines is a skill all authors need.

Today’s reader will accept the “once upon a time” opening only for a certain type of story. Other types of stories need a different style of opening. But regardless of the genre or style of fiction, the beginningMaking first Impressions with First lines is a skill all authors need. Explore first lines with me. of the book is critical. In fact, often readers will pick up a book at the library or store and read the first few paragraphs before taking the book home. If the first lines grab the reader, the book goes home. On the other hand, if the first lines of the book make the reader go ‘bleh ‘ the book is put down and never opened again.

If you ‘ve written and rewritten first lines and first chapters of your book, trying to achieve that perfect first impression and are still struggling to create a great opening, it ‘s time to step away from the manuscript for a little study session.

Studying First Lines

For our purposes here, I ‘m going to arbitrarily define the opening of the story as the first 100 words. In my personal quest for a great opening, I chose to study the first five pages of ten favorite novels. Obviously, the first five pages of ten different novels would make a very long post. So today we ‘ll stick to just two examples.

Below are the openings of two of my favorite novels. Take a moment and read them, three times. Read once as a reader. Next, read it aloud. Finally, read it as a writer.


by Frank Herbert, Ace Books 1965

In the weeks before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.
The old woman was let in by the side door down the vaulted passage by Paul’s room and she was allowed a moment to peer in at him where he lay in his bed.

In three lines of Dune, Frank Herbert has given us a location, a life-changing event, the main character, and a mysterious presence. He created tension, a sense of foreboding, and a sense that something momentous is about to happen. Are you hooked? I sure am.

Read this passage aloud. Notice the rhythm, the cadence of his words. Notice the sound and feel of the words: Arrakis, scurrying, crone, Castle Caladan, ancient, Atreides.

Notice it’s final scurrying and unbearable frenzy. Did you catch the references to change? What else did you notice?

Okay. Let’s try another passage from another book.

Seventh Son

by Orson Scott Card, Tor 1987

Little Peggy was very careful with the eggs. She rooted her hand through the straw till her fingers bumped something hard and heavy. She gave no never mind to the chicken drips. After all, when folk with babies stayed at the roadhouse, Mama never even crinkled her face at their most spetackler diapers. Even when the chicken drips were wet and stringy and made her fingers stick together, little Peggy gave no never mind. She just pushed the straw apart, wrapped her hand around the egg, and lifted it out of the brood box. All this while standing tiptoe on a wobbly stool, reaching high above her head.

In this 108 words by Orson Scott Card there is a strong sense of character, of the roadhouse, of the society in which little Peggy lives. I like Peggy. Do you? Do you want to know more about her? Can you feel the straw and the sticky eggs? Can you see the wobbly stool with little Peggy reaching for the nests? Do you want to know what happens next?

Now, look for what each of the opening passages above have in common. Both of the examples have a strong sense of character, of place, and each evoke a mood that promises something is about to happen.

Armed with this information I can now go back to my manuscript. I know the elements I need in my story and I can re-craft my opening to make the first words count.

Your turn–Making First Impressions with First Lines

Copy the openings of your favorite books into your word processor or journal or onto a piece of paper. Study those openings.

Read the passages aloud. Listen to the cadence, the rhythm of the words. Look for character, place, time, mood, and foreshadowing. Notice words that pique your interest.

While reading the beginning lines of one of your favorites, ask yourself questions about each individual passage. Why this character? Why this location? Why now? How does it make me feel?

Then return to your manuscript. Look for what it has in common with your favorite books. Strength those things and I’ll bet you will have a much stronger beginning. In fact, you may even craft first lines that your reader will favorite.

Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear from you. Won’t you share examples of authors making first impressions with first lines?

A Short Writing Lesson: Dogged by Guilt

Characterization and story set up doesn’t have to be difficult. Sometimes all it takes is a few well-chosen words and specific reactions. This is especially true when your character is dogged by guilt.

Every guilty person is his own hangman.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Who is Dogged by Guilt

Can you identify the antagonist, protagonist, and the story question in this video?

More than One Story

One way to see the story in the video is that the white dog is the protagonist and the guilty party. Trying to get away with wrong doing. The voice (presumably of the owner) is the antagonist.

Turn that around. Make the white dog the antagonist.

See how the same characters with different goals using guilt as the primary emotion can create two different stories? That is a sign that you have couple of complex characters.

Don’t get how being dogged by guilt can create great characters? Read Lies, Secrets, and Scars Create Better Characters.

What other writing lessons do you see in this video?

Thanks, loyal readers, for sticking with me. A deadline is looming and I must keep my focus on completing that project. Regular blogging will resume as soon as possible.