My name is Amy and I love reality television. There, I said it out loud. When you decide what to watch first on your DVR based on what you would be most embarrassed by if anyone saw it…well, you know you have a problem. One of my favorites is Project Runway. I love watching their creative process! One contestant plans and sketches precisely, while another decides to “let the fabric speak to him.” They cut and they sew, they line and they drape. They make clothes out of jump-ropes and flowers and nails, and they do it all in an extremely limited time frame. Tim Gunn, their mentor, is constantly telling them to “make it work,” and I am always blown away by what they are able to accomplish. But my favorite moments are when they get a critique that sends them back to the drawing board. This is the moment where we really get to see what they are made of. Short on time and fabric, will they make it work? Will they start over? Or will they give up?
In my new picture book, SOPHIE’S ANIMAL PARADE, we meet a little girl who is having a “make it work,” moment. Everything she draws comes to life, and she is looking for a new friend. But every friend she draws has some sort of complaint about being in her room, and she can’t seem to get it quite right. The polar bear is too warm, the giraffe is too tall, the duck needs to swim, and soon, things get a little wild in Sophie’s world. As writers and illustrators, I’m sure we can relate to Sophie. We get sent back to the drawing board on our work, and as soon as we fix one thing, another thing pops up as a problem. We try to “make it work,” but something is still not working. And this is the moment we really get to see what we are made of as artists. Will we make it work? Will we start over? Or will we give up?
My name is Amy and I am a perfectionist. (Anyone who has been to my house can just shush up right now…yes, I know the handprint-littered walls, juice-stained carpets, and laundry-lined hallways tell a different story…but that is a post for another time.) I have written about perfectionism before. I have lashed out at it for stealing the fun, condemned it for stunting my growth, tried to exorcise it from my life completely. But right now, I want to talk about the upside of perfectionism. Because the truth is that when it comes to writing and submitting our work, perfectionism doesn’t always play the bad guy.
Sometimes, perfectionism can be the voice of wisdom. It says, “This story isn’t quite there yet,” when your story really isn’t there. It says, “Set it aside for a week and then look at it one more time,” when something still feels off. It says, “Back to the drawing board!” when your first-person POV isn’t working. Having to go back to the drawing board can be discouraging. But chances are, if you feel that something isn’t quite right, then any agent or editor you send it to is going to feel the same way. They’re going to see that the polar bear is sweating profusely and the giraffe has a neck cramp and the duck is dehydrated. They are going to see, and quickly, that you were unable to “make it work!”
So what do we do? The answer is simple. There are times that we need to listen to that perfectionist voice and wait. The good news is that this is not Project Runway. We do not have to send our work out onto the runway in less than 24 hours. We don’t have to let Nina Garcia and Michael Kors see our pleated wool herringbone masterpiece of a garment until it is ready. We have the luxury of time. So embrace it. Rewrite that scene in 3rd person, just to see if it might work. Give that dialogue a week to marinate, to see if it still feels authentic. And, like Sophie, don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board. If you think an elephant might do the job, then try an elephant. It might turn out to be a colossal mess, but every failed attempt gets us one step closer to making it work.
To celebrate the release of my new picture book (today!), SOPHIE’S ANIMAL PARADE, I’m giving away a signed copy! Just comment here, telling me what your favorite “guilty pleasure” TV show is before Sunday, May 10th at noon PST and you’ll be entered to win!