The Pursuit of Perfection

An early version of this post originally appeared on my personal website.

Let’s talk a bit about perfection.

It’s become such an ideal in our culture. It’s not usually stated outright (aside from ‘Oh, he’s the perfect guy’ or ‘She’s the perfect girl’), but the thought is that perfection is something, not just to aim for, but to actually be attained. Whether in one’s life goals, or in a significant other; in the car you drive, the house you live in, the job you hold; they have to ‘perfect.’

But what is perfection, anyway? Is it a set of ideals we arbitrarily impose? Or does an actual standard for perfection exist, somewhere out there in the universe? While that’s an excellent question, I think the real question is: “Why have we made perfection and the pursuit thereof into a god?”

Take the most obvious and prevalent example. What’s the most important thing in a significant other? Perfection, of course. Just look at all those romantic movies and animated features touting the two characters who find their ‘perfect match!’ After all, we all know that Hollywood is the best model for real life.

Sarcasm aside, this is a very dangerous assumption. No one is perfect. No one can even come close to attaining perfection, this side of Heaven. And yet, it’s so important to us…. so important that we’re willing to sacrifice anything to capture it.

Am I making sense? I hope so, because now I’ll start talking about what I’m supposed to be talking about: writing. Namely, the pursuit of perfection in writing.

Let’s talk about your latest work in progress. How’s it coming? Are you close to being finished? Have you even made any progress lately? If you haven’t, maybe it’s time to ask yourself another question:

Am I expecting too much?”

Ponder that question for a second. Then ask yourself why you’re writing in the first place. Is it to have fun? Is it to share your ideas, work through your struggles, pose yourself difficult questions? Or is it maybe because you just want to make money? (If that’s the case, you better find yourself a different career. We don’t make money like you’re thinking.)

If you’re in this because you love it, because you honestly can’t imagine doing anything else with your life (this is your life) and you want to touch people with your writing… then are you expecting too much from yourself?

I’m not necessarily saying to lower your expectations or reduce your goals. Having high expectations for your writing, and working to achieve those expectations, is laudable. But sometimes we creative types go too far, and when we can’t get it ‘perfect’, we give up; or worse, get stuck in the groundhog day of endless revising. I should clarify that I’m not talking about spelling and grammar here– you have to work to get those right, no question about it– but about concerns of style, plot, characterization, etc.

In that context, what’s perfect? And who’s to say that what seems ‘perfect’ for one particular project might be perfect for a totally different one? This is a long and dreary road to tread.

At some point, we’ll have to realize that this idea of perfection in writing is bonkers. Perfect writing, perfectly written books, never touched anyone. It’s the flaws in our writing, the emotions that seep through onto the page, that character we never felt was quite ‘perfect’ but is so believable anyway; these things that connect us with our audience.

Quite honestly, if you don’t have a few people disliking and complaining about your writing (or plot, or characters), then you haven’t written a ‘perfect’ book; you’ve written a perfectly saccharine book. There’s nothing to dislike about it because there’s nothing to like about it. It arouses no emotions, stimulates no thought, and asks no questions. Do you want that?

I’ve never read a ‘perfect’ story. Nor have I written one. And I hope I never do.

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