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Control, Perfectionism, and Being a Vulture

I freely admit to being a control freak. I’m not proud of this, and it certainly makes life difficult in some ways, but there are good sides to it, too. For example, I’m normally very productive and organized. I’m always on time and I always meet my deadlines.
But lately the universe has been telling me I need to let go of the illusion of control over things in my life. Because, really, what can we control? Therapists counseling people in relationship difficulties will tell them the only thing they can control is their reaction to other people. Yet even our own reactions are difficult to control when we’ve spent years forming habits of interacting with others in certain ways.
The first step in AA is well known: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Other 12-step programs modify this step to fit whatever the addiction or problem is, but the basic truth is this: “we are powerless.” While this statement may not be helpful to some people, it’s useful for me to remember when I’m on a control rampage.
Empty book mockup templateI’ve been reading a great book by Lauren Sapala called The INFJ Writer: Cracking the Creative Genius of the World’s Rarest Type. Being an INFJ (based on the Myers-Briggs personality typology) as well as a writer, I was naturally intrigued. I thought I knew myself really well, but Sapala helped me understand myself better. The passage that seems particularly relevant to my life lately is this one:

The best piece of advice for any INFJ who is in the grip of perfectionism is to Stop Thinking About It. Whatever “It” is for you. The book you want to write. The guy or girl you want to be your soulmate. Your dream house. The thinking only takes you so far, and honestly, it is our tertiary function. We like to flatter ourselves that we can hang with the Thinkers any time we want, but the truth is that it’s not our superpower. We get into damaging loops where we circle the topic like a vulture, our Introverted Intuition ready to pick the bones clean for any new information that we can join up with existing knowledge to complete the pattern. But sometimes, there’s just no new information to be had. The piece you’re looking for that will make everything fit—how to write the perfect book, how to be absolutely sure this is your soulmate—doesn’t exist. You’ve got to wing it. In fact, it seems the Universe is demanding that you wing it.

Now, winging it is not what control freaks do. But I know exactly what Sapala means when she talks about damaging loops. I am that vulture! My husband and I are currently house hunting, and I’ve been picking the bones clean, so to speak, from every real estate listing within a 40-km radius of my city in search of that dream house. It’s exhausting.
Being an academic doesn’t help. Not every academic is a control freak, but many of us are, and being a professor and researcher does nothing to teach me how to wing it. I work alone most of the time and don’t have to answer to anyone. Even when I’m working with students, I’m the boss, and unless there’s a serious problem that requires the intervention of my department head, I can organize my courses and set the rules the way I want to.
Isolated vulture, buzzard looking at youI’m taking Sapala’s advice as best I can, especially to Stop Thinking About the dream house. Interestingly, I’m seeing parallels between my difficulty relinquishing control to my agents, both my real estate agent and my literary agent. Having an agent of any kind involves letting that person have some control of the process. I’m so used to doing everything for myself and knowing all the details that it’s hard to trust someone else to research the details for a contract/deal that’s so important to me. The other day, as I swooped down to (virtually) feast on the latest house-for-sale carcass, my husband said,  “Just let [our agent] do his job.” He’s said the same thing in relation to my literary agent! (And if either agent is reading this, I apologize if I’m being annoying!)  Fortunately, I do back off and stop being a pest as soon as I realize I’m in the damaging loop.
My latest lesson in winging it came from the protagonist of my newest novel. I’ve been struggling with her for months now and feeling blocked because she’s less like me than any other character I’ve written (she’s an ESFP, in Myers-Briggs terms). She knows how to wing it. She’s not a control freak. But I’ve been frustrated with her the way I would be with a recalcitrant child. “Why won’t you talk to me?” I complain. “How can I possibly write your story if I don’t understand you?” And then a couple of days ago, she sashayed into my head, sat down and told me who she is and how she wants her story approached. It was like a gift from heaven, but I couldn’t help but wonder why it took her so long. I just had to wait until she was ready to tell me. I can’t even control my characters, so why do I think I can control anything or anyone else?
Lesson learned, hopefully. This vulture is going to try to wing it!


  1. Lauren Sapala

    I’m so honored by this Clarissa! And I’m so glad you found that chapter helpful. Perfectionism can really be very crippling, and unfortunately, since our culture rewards workaholism we tend to encourage it. I still get into those “damaging loops” myself all the time.
    And good luck with the house! Your dream house will find you, all in right timing 🙂

  2. Abby

    This is a great reminder for me, too! When I’m stuck I tend to get in the rut of trying to find the “perfect” advice to get out of it, but that passage you included is completely true. The only way out is through it. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Susan Örnbratt

    Loved your last paragraph here, Clarissa! I’ve been struggling with one of my characters exactly the same way. They really have a mind of their own. It’s so strange how it happens but you’re right, we have to listen to them and back off so they can tell their story the way “they” are meant to tell it. Great post!

    • Clarissa Harwood

      Hi Susan! It is weird, isn’t it? I know perfectly well that my characters are creations of my own mind, but they certainly seem to act like independent beings sometimes. Thanks for commenting, and I hope your characters treat you well!

  4. James Wood

    Great posting, Clarissa. The perfectionism problem is quite the one, isn’t it – I hate doing a less than perfect drawing in my sketchbook – in my SKETCHBOOK!!! THE place where rough work should live! I do try to “not think about” a vision of perfection when working. Sometimes, I feel anxiety creeping up between my shoulders like a spider (I know you’ll love that image) I have to remind myself to breath, and be calm, and remember that I have succeeded before and the more I worry, the less well the work will go and more mediocre the product will be. Distracting one’s self also works, though I bet as a writer, you can’t distract yourself with music.
    I also liked hearing how your characters talked to you. That must be pretty interesting, and I wonder if when they do that, it is a sign that you are getting to know them quite well.

    • Clarissa Harwood

      Thanks for commenting, James, and for sharing your experience. It’s so interesting that even a sketchbook can be a place of struggle with perfectionism! But now you’ve got me wondering if it would help to consider the disconnected scenes I write before starting a draft of a novel my sketchbook. Or even to consider the first draft a sketchbook. Most likely I’ll still struggle. I like your idea about distracting yourself, too. Sometimes that really is the only way to move forward.
      When my characters talk to me, they’re giving me a chance to know them. That’s how I see it. And sometimes they swoop in during a third or fourth draft to correct me if I’ve started to misrepresent them! 🙂

  5. Catherine North

    This is a great post and it’s always interesting to hear about the relationships other writers have with their characters. I sometimes can’t believe how real mine are to me :-). I also loved Lauren’s book too. I’m INFP but so much of it was relevant to me.

    • Clarissa Harwood

      Thanks, Catherine! I’m enjoying your blog posts, too. Probably most NFs would find Lauren’s book relevant. I’m glad I found you through her blog!

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