Perfection: the graveyard where writers go to die

by Nancy Butts


Old Calton Cemetery, Edinburgh, Scotland
© 2013 Infrared photo by Nancy Butts


“Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

That is the original French  of a quote by Voltaire, one that literally translates as, “The best is the enemy of the good.” But it was the more common English translation by which this quote is better known that popped up randomly on my iPhone one May morning.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Talk about a smartphone. How did Fetch (yes, I know it’s geeky, but I name my Mac gear) know that was precisely what I needed to hear that morning? Just the day before I had spent a frustrating few hours at my keyboard. I had finally managed to scrounge three precious hours of solitude and quiet to work on a chapter of my middle grade novel—and wrote not a single word.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think perfection was my enemy. I think perfection—or the delusional notion that such a mythical beast exists—is the enemy of all writers.  

Many of us have this harpy who lives in our heads, one who is always nagging, “Don’t you dare write that sentence down until you’re 100 percent absolutely positively certain that it’s the most perfect sentence anyone has ever written in the entire history of English literature.”

And so we sit there, paralyzed. Maybe we do write something down—but then we remember the book we read last month by the Young Literary Lion (or Lioness). You know, the debut novel that won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and the Pen Faulkner, got the author short-listed for a MacArthur or a Guggenheim fellowship, and sent critics into paroxysms of praise so great that their editors had to slap them to get them to stop gushing. Plus it was on the New York Times best-seller week for a gazillion weeks.

Naturally, we compare the scene we just wrote to the incandescently-brilliant scenes in that book by the Genius Author. Naturally, our scene seems like the nose-picking asthmatic runt in fourth grade whom no one ever wanted to sit next to at lunch.

So we toss out that scene. [Or, as one of my writer-friends once did, we balance a stapler on the Delete key of our computer keyboard and watch masochistically as the cursor plows backwards, eating the consummate lousiness of our work one letter at a time.]

Then we sit some more. This time if an idea does appear in our dessicated brain, we judge it to be so lame that we don’t even bother to write it down. After enough of this, we decide that maybe we need to do some more research, so we login to Google or Wikipedia, and before we know it, we’re playing Words for Friends against our Facebook friends. [Many of whom are writers avoiding their own lousy sentences.]

A month before her suicide, the poet Sylvia Plath wrote this in her poem “The Munich Mannequins.”

Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.
Cold as snow breath, it tamps the womb

The quixotic quest for perfection in our work does indeed “tamp the womb,” preventing us from writing at all. So I am here to tell you that perfection does not exist. It is an illusion, a delusion, a cruel will-o-the-wisp that taunts us and drives us to a kind of creative catalepsy.

The cure? First, realize that literary genius—if it exists at all, which I think is debatable—doesn’t spring full-blown from the brow of Zeus. That Literary Lioness? I guarantee you that before her so-called debut novel, she wrote and discarded hundreds of thousands of pages, and millions of words. And if you could root through her trash and take a look at those pages, you would understand why she threw them away. They were every bit as ghastly as you think your writing is now.

So the second part of the cure is this: give yourself permission to write dreck, and lots of it. I’m not the first writer to say this, but you have to write a lot of bad prose in order to find your voice, your rhythm, and get to the good stuff.

But if the harpy that lives in your head is as persistent as mine, it isn’t easy to drown out her incessant cry for perfection. How do you enable yourself to write dreck when she is trying to paralyze you?

Freewrite for ten to twenty minutes at the start of every work session. Again, I’m not the first person to recommend this, but there’s a reason for that—freewriting works. [Well, except for the fictional playwright Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining. He tried to bang his way out of a block by typing “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” over and over, but only succeeded in driving himself to a homicidal frenzy. But he was fictional! That’s not likely to happen to you. And note how prolific his creator is; King hardly seems to have suffered a blocked day in his entire writing life.]

Write longhand on paper, or tap it out on your keyboard; the key is to never let your hand stop. If you have to write this…

I am a talentless hack who has never written a single good sentence in my entire life.

…over and over again, that’s fine. Because trust me; if you keep your hand moving, eventually after a few minutes something will shift into gear in your writer’s brain and a word, a phrase, a sentence will pop out—a good one. OK, maybe it will only be a middling good one at first, but don’t worry. Write it down anyway. You can fix it later. For now your priority is to stop judging yourself and keep writing.

Once you get going—once you find your way into the scene or chapter you are writing—you may stall out later. Then use what I call the placeholder technique. If you have no clue what a character should say or do at a specific moment in the scene, that’s what you should write. I often write lines such as, “Main character should have emotional reaction here,”or even, “Insert dramatic action.” Believe it or not, when I come back to these placeholders the next day during revision, I’m actually able to flesh these things out with real dialogue, action, and narrative.

Or maybe you are writing non-fiction—say an article about how perfectionism cripples writers—and you’re not sure where in the piece a particular point should go. Just write the idea that you can see most clearly in your head now, and forget about creating a smooth, logical narrative flow. Again, that’s something you can fix later, swapping paragraphs around during revision. [Thank the Muse for computers.] What’s important now is to be like a shark—never stop swimming through the sea of words and ideas because if you do, you’ll sink.

Tiger_sharkThe stories, books, and articles you create will never be perfect—no writer, not even Shakespeare, can claim that. But if you allow yourself to be paralyzed—to stop writing because your work never measures up to that impossible ideal—you’ll die as a writer. You have to keep writing, through all the tortuous sentences, wooden dialogue, and the purple prose, in order to give yourself the chance to eventually write something that isn’t perfect, only good. But good writing is good enough to inspire, delight, and transport readers.

So go write something awful today.

[© 2013 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email