I’ve always loved taking those personality tests you find in magazines and on the internet. I don’t know what it is, exactly. I just have this deep longing to understand who I am and what makes me tick, because more often than not it’s a mystery even to me. The personality test I’ve found most accurate is the Myers-Briggs test, which sorts you into one of 16 “types” (like Hogwarts houses! But more specific.) I’m an INFJ which means, among other things, that I’m extremely hard on myself. I expect perfection every time, and when I fall short I don’t always handle it very well.
For example, last weekend I read through the first ten chapters of one of the manuscripts I’m working on, making notes as I went. I started off quite cheerful: “Oh, that’s a nice phrase. That metaphor could be a little sharper, but it’s certainly on its way.” But as I read further, and the red ink grew thicker, my mood began to change. Gone were the constructive comments. In their place were single word insults in red pen: “Sucks,” “Bad,” and “NO.”
I couldn’t make myself finish reading, I was that discouraged. I thought I was writing something good! What was this pile of rubbish in front of me? None of it was worth keeping. I’d have to start again.
But then my kind, patient husband found me and offered to talk it through. “What’s this?” he said, pointing to a note on the first page.
“Yeah, well, I liked that one line, but the rest of it is crap.”
“What about here? You haven’t made any notes here. Doesn’t that mean you like it?”
“Maybe,” I grumbled.
“Is it possible these chapters aren’t entirely terrible?” he asked, gently. “Maybe there are some things in there you might want to keep?”
I looked at the pages, at all that red ink. Yes, there were a lot of changes I wanted to make. But was he right? Was it possible to change things without throwing the whole lot out?
It came as a bit of a revelation to me. For the last five years, I’ve drafted exactly the same way: Draft, read through, start over. I couldn’t remember ever actually editing a piece without starting from scratch. I let that red pen, all those critical voices, demoralize me to the point that I could barely read my own writing. Maybe there was another way.
Here’s the thing about personality tests. They’re like showroom cars — the base model. Once you get that baby out of the store, you can do all sorts of things to it. You can slap a new paint of coat on it. You can add a spoiler or mag wheels. You can put seat covers on and cover the bumper in stickers or hang fluffy dice on the rearview mirror. A Suzuki will still be a Suzuki, but that doesn’t mean it’s exactly the same as all the other Suzukis out there, or even that its the same as when it rolled off the truck.
Knowing your own weaknesses is important, because it’s the first step towards change. Here are the changes I decided to make after that conversation with my husband:
1. No more red pens. I’ve found a lovely green one I’m going to use instead.
2. No more throwing drafts out without a very good reason.
3. As I read and make comments, I’m going to have a highlighter beside me so I can highlight the parts I do like. No more focusing on the problems. I want to focus more on all the things worth keeping.
So far, it’s helped a lot.
Tell me, friends: Are you a perfectionist? If so, how do you work through your perfectionist tendencies? What strategies do you have to manage the negative voices?