Shattering Stigmas: On Perfectionism as a Debut Author by Zack Smedley

Welcome to the ninth day of Shattering Stigmas! From now until October 22 I’ll be highlighting voices from the book community on mental health. I’m co-hosting this event with Taylor from Stay on the Page, Shannon from It Starts at Midnight, and Amber from YA Indulgences so make sure to check their blogs out each day to see different content.

In September 2013, filmmaker Damien Chazelle—best known for the acclaimed films La La Land and Whiplash—was in a roadway accident that totaled his car. Despite being hospitalized, Chazelle returned to work the next day to resume filming Whiplash, which had a shooting schedule comprised of 18-hour workdays. The film went on to rack up 114 award nominations, win 49 of them, and is considered by many—myself included—to be one of the greatest films of its time.

When I read about this, I smirked and thought, “now there’s a guy who’s serious about the things he creates.” It reminded of the stories I’d heard of Aaron Sorkin, who would regularly turn in scripts late for The West Wing because he wasn’t happy with them yet. Or pop star MARINA, who rejected offers from 14 record labels because she wasn’t satisfied with their level of creative control.

These are textbook instances of perfectionism at play, and unfortunately, they’re also examples of my own behavior leading up to the release of my debut novel this past May. Some of you who know me have heard the tales…things like, my publisher cycling through eight cover ideas because I wasn’t comfortable with the first seven. Or the way I fought to keep my book’s title (Deposing Nathan) instead of one more marketable towards YA. And, most recently, me insisting that I’d take 10 years to write my next project if that’s how long it took to get it right.

To clarify right off the bat: perfectionism is a symptom rather than a cause. The cause, in my case, is a set of mental divergences I’m not comfortable publicly getting into, but I hope it’s sufficient to say I belong to the neurodivergent community. And as a part of this, perfectionism is something I’ve dealt with—in many areas—for as long as I can remember.

Publication year, though…that dialed everything up to 11. 

Early into the writing and editing phase of things, my brain developed a base philosophy that looked like this: nearly anything was worth sacrificing if it meant eeking out even 1% higher quality from my book. Sleep, sanity, my social life…these were all nice things to have, but disposable in service of getting my book as close to perfect as possible. And all those people—such as my agent or my friends—who urged me to give myself a break? Well, their attitude represented exactly the type of mediocrity I was trying to steer away from. 

And here’s what really did a number on me: my approach netted results. My book was released to critical acclaim, including a Kirkus Star and a New York Times review that called it “a superb story, told in an original and masterly way.” For the first time, I was truly proud of myself…but not because of the accomplishments. Rather, because my method felt like it was working. When my agent called to tell me about the NYT review, the first words out of my mouth were, “awesome. How can we use that?” I was focused only on the mission. Everyone was happy for me—great. That was their job. Not mine. My job was to steer the ship and buckle down. After all, that’s the only reason we got this far, right?

There’s another key component of perfectionism: the biggest wins are when you feel you must be at your most guarded, because the highest lift creates the chance for the biggest fall. The only thing I was truly proud of myself for—the one thing I did BETTER than almost anyone in this field—was my ability to sacrifice my own sense of accomplishment in service of creating something lastingly exceptional in quality. (And I won’t lie…even as I type that sentence, it doesn’t sound as ridiculous to me as it should.)

On top of all this, the real kicker is that every manner of pushing back against reasonableness feels like it gives strength to your convictions. And I was convinced that this was the key to becoming one of the great creators like Damien Chazelle or Aaron Sorkin…the guys who go the extra mile but get results. The artists who get called “unreasonable,” but then they put out a superb product, so onlookers shake their heads and say, “this person here…they’re playing 4D chess.” That’s the person who, according to my brain, I needed to be.

This may sound like arrogance, but it was actually the opposite. I didn’t of think myself as being better than my fellow authors in the field…but rather, I felt fundamentally upset that I wasn’t on a different level than them. That I was churning out the same “pretty good,” stuff that everyone else was. Every day since I wrote my book, I’ve lived in constant belief and awareness of how good it isn’t. And to publish it in an imperfect state—to mail in the final proof and say “it is what it is”—felt like capitulation to laziness. To this day, if you were to ask me to rate my book on an objective basis of literary merit, I’d give it a 7/10. And I have many talking points as to why it deserves that rating. I hate that I couldn’t do better, and part of me always will. I hate that I didn’t write the next Whiplash or West Wing. Because that was my mission, and I failed it.

However—as you’ve no doubt been muttering to your keyboard throughout this entire post—this attitude is fundamentally flawed. And, much more importantly, me attempting to abandon it is not lazy. Because all along, none of this bs made me special or unique. It just meant my head was so far up my ass that it’d probably be illegal to dislodge it in Alabama.

Imagine if I’d walked into my chemical engineering day job and declared that I’d only be working on the cure for cancer, and wouldn’t stop until I found it, and anyone who slowly tinkered in lesser research—meticulously building their platform—simply lacked ambition. No one would think, “that guy is going places.” They’d think, “this petulant child obviously has no idea how his own career works.”

This is the point of this post, and it’s something I’ve only started embracing in the past few weeks: to abandon perfectionism is not to abandon the pursuit of greatness; but rather, to abandon an obstacle hindering one’s journey towards betterness. It means that instead of convincing yourself that everyone else is blinded by lack of aspiration, maybe they’re just looking at the bigger picture you’re too stubborn to see. Maybe you didn’t get where you are because of your approach, but in spite of it.

The thing that’s helped me start getting a handle on this—and, in fact, what led me to have this epiphany in the first place—is that I started going to therapy. And even though I’ve only been in it for a few weeks, it’s already helped me to realize that my brain has been sliding the biggest pair of beer goggles over my eyes, and I’ve been swerving down the publishing highway despite clearly knowing how to drive and where I want to go.

This is something I’m still struggling with, and I probably will for a while. But now that I recognize the tricks my brain tends to play on me, I can begin managing it and disallowing it from hindering my life. Now I can stop trying to cure cancer and—for once—join everyone else on our journey towards a gradual, ordinary greatness.

Zack Smedley was born and raised in southern Maryland, in an endearing county almost no one has heard of. He has a degree in Chemical Engineering from UMBC and currently works within the field. As a member of the LGBT community, his goal is to give a voice to marginalized young adults through gritty, morally complex narratives. He spends his free time building furniture, baking, tinkering with electronics, and managing his obsession with the works of Aaron Sorkin. Deposing Nathan is his first novel. You can find him on his website, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Goodreads.

Before you go, consider also reading Zack’s guest post on profanity in YA as well as my review for Deposing Nathan and the official book playlist.

Want to win two mental health related books? Enter through the Rafflecopter form and good luck!

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