The Myth of Perfection

I read a wonderful little book by Kristine Kathryn Rusch titled The Pursuit of Perfection and How It Harms Writers.

She says, “I spend most of my time in the craft workshops that I teach repairing damage done years, sometimes decades, earlier. That damage isn’t deliberately malicious. It comes from the assumption that perfect stories not only exist, but can be revised into existence.”

Hmm. I’m guilty of this faulty thinking — that if I revise a short story one more time, I’ll remove any weak dialogue or plot elements. My characters will shine with authenticity. My grammar and punctuation will be stellar without a comma out of place. The story will be practically perfect in every way.

I’m guilty of not showing anyone my manuscript (or blog post) because it might contain errors, those little gremlins that lurk unseen until you click “Publish.”

I’m guilty of not finishing a piece (or worse, not starting at all) because I’m afraid I can’t get it “right.” I become paralyzed by the fear of failure.

Of course my writing is far from perfect. It will always contain errors. It could always be better.

Here’s Rusch again:

When you strive for perfection in your writing, you’re dooming yourself to perpetual failure.”

Producing an error-free story isn’t the goal.

Voltaire quote perfect

I should aim to write a story that touches the reader and says something meaningful rather than one that follows all the rules at the expense of art. Like the pianist who plays Chopin with precision, every note spot-on, but his music lacks feeling. It is lifeless.

If I wait until a piece is flawless, I won’t put it out there at all. In fact, I’m tempted to spend more time on this post. If I worked on it for a few weeks, it might be almost perfect. I could make it funnier, clearer, deeper…

“Set a limit on revisions, set a limit on drafts, set a time limit…Then release your book on an unsuspecting public. The book will never be perfect.”

But it can be good. And that’s enough.

Story = Speed x Time

When I turned fifty, I realized more than half my life was over, and I still hadn’t pursued my childhood dream of writing a book. I’d buried this desire deep under a pile of worthwhile obligations, self-doubt, and busyness—much of which amounted to mere people-pleasing. I put everything ahead of the dream.

But when I celebrated that milestone birthday, I felt a sense of urgency. I didn’t want to reach the end of my life never having tried. So I made writing a priority.

The Plan

If I really wanted to publish a book, I had to find the time to do it. It came down to numbers:

500 words x 160 hours = 80,000 word novel

If I can write 500 words an hour, I told myself, I’ll finish my first draft in 160 hours. Writing an hour each day, that’s 160 days.

Or maybe, I thought, I can dash off a thousand words an hour and finish twice as fast.

1000 words x 80 hours = 80,000 word novel

At this rate I would complete the rough draft in less than three months. I liked that plan.


The Problem

After an enthusiastic and naïve launch, I nose-dived into reality: most days I didn’t have an hour of quiet leisure to write.

I had read all the advice to

write first thing in the morning,

guard your writing time,

find a quiet place.

But for me, these wise recommendations became excuses for not starting each day. The reasonable voice of Resistance* would tell me, “It’s noisy in the house. And you only have fifteen minutes before you have to cook supper. Might as well check Twitter instead.”

A few months ago, after I failed to write for several days and the frustration mounted, it hit me: finding enough time is less about changing my circumstances and more about changing my thinking. Finding enough time starts in my mind.

Don’t Despise the Day of Small Things: Snatching Bits of Time

My insistence on perfect conditions was keeping me from using what time I had. I’d made a few erroneous assumptions:

1)      I need solitude.

Of course, it’s easier if I’m alone and the room is quiet and no one is interrupting. Yes, it’s less efficient to write while surrounded by distractions, but maximum efficiency is a luxury. Perfectionist thinking told me I couldn’t be creative unless I had seclusion. This is false.

2)      I need a large block of time.

Nope. I can do things in spurts. Ten minutes here. Five minutes there. An hour-long session would be the bee’s knees, but I’m amazed by how much I can accomplish piecemeal. Again, I had to drop the all-or-nothing thinking.

3)      I need a designated place and hour, i.e. my easy chair in the morning with the cat by my side.

Now I snatch moments in various places. I write on the go. I have Microsoft Word on my phone, and if I’m sitting in the waiting room at the ophthalmologist’s office, I compose a few sentences or jot down a few notes.

If, like me, you can’t follow the recommended practices of other authors, don’t despair. Find what works for you. If you can take activities off your schedule, do it. If you can delegate tasks, do it. If, instead of cooking, you can order Chinese takeout, make that call. Then, after you’ve cut the deadwood from your to-do list and your calendar, find a way to write with your life as it is, not as you wish it could be.

I’m curious to know if other people struggle with this. Leave me a comment if you have other thoughts or suggestions.

In the next post I’ll talk about Speed.


*Author Steven Pressfield talks a lot about the evil monster Resistance in his books on writing. You can find him here.