The perfection problem

I don’t think they do this anymore, but when I was in second grade, a good part of our year was spent studying penmanship. We practiced stringing our cursive letters together, scrawling them over and over across lined paper, mimicking the shapes and words that our teacher wrote on the board.

If I’m being honest (as opposed to humble) I have to say, I was the best at this. My f’s, g’s, j’s, p’s, q’s, y’s and z’s all fell to exactly the right depth. My h’s, m’s, and n’s had textbook humps. Even the angle of my slant was impeccable.

In fact, my handwriting was so good that the teacher selected me to be her special assistant and help enter everybody’s grades into her grade book after class. Oh yeah, I was the bomb dot com.

How did I win such a coveted honor? By pushing my penmanship to perfection.

Or so I thought at the time.

Now, with my “kid vision” off, I can see that my r’s kind of look like v’s, and sometimes the loops are too wide in my b’s, d’s, and l’s. It’s no big deal, though. Of course my handwriting isn’t perfect! Nothing is.

Yes, my cursive was better than many of the other students’ — but that isn’t what got me the job. So why did my teacher ask me to be her grade book assistant? Because I had a good attitude, I worked diligently, and I paid attention to detail.

(And oh yeah, I wasn’t going to go gossiping about what so-and-so scored on her spelling test, or what whoseewhatchit got on his rainforest project.)

Sometimes I forget this lesson that I learned almost (holy cow) two decades ago. Sometimes I forget that perfection cannot be attained. Sometimes I spend hours sitting in front of my computer, paralyzed by a single sentence, because I’m trying to shape it into something flawless instead of just telling the dang story.

(Note to self: Stop that, you moron.)

Unfortunately, last week was one of those “sometimes.” But don’t worry, I’m back in business now, pushing forward with my “kid vision” on. I’m approaching my manuscript with a good attitude, working diligently, and paying attention to the details of plot and character. I know that when it’s all said and done, the writing won’t be perfect. But as I learned (so many!) years ago, perfection isn’t really what life’s about.

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20 Comments

  1. Back when I was in high school, I went through a Danielle Steel book phase (so sue me), and one of the books had this main character who made TV commercials, and the book put forth this idea that it was more difficult to make a 30 second commercial than a 2 hour feature film because there was no room for error in a 30 second commercial.

    I think the same can be said of novels (as opposed to short stories or *especially* poems). With something as long as a novel, some parts are going to be better than others and – as you said – there’s no such thing as perfect.

    It was a lesson I reminded myself of (bitterly!) last week with my WIP too. :)

  2. I need a “stop that you moron” post-it on my desk for the days where nothing sounds good enough. :)

    I got to be a grader too, except it was for a math teacher. MATH! Terrible, but I liked the teacher. It’s still a running joke in my family that I got to grade math homework but it took me 3 tries to pass math in college.

  3. That’s one of my favorite things about writing – there is always room to grow, blossom, and improve. I think it’d be boring if everything was perfect, because in a way it would feel less real and organic. Life is messy, the stories we tell are often open to different complexities and interpretations, and a flawless manuscript wouldn’t mirror that. Of course we want them to be the best they can be – but more important than perfection is doing what’s right for the story. Thanks for the reminder :)

  4. I’ve struggled with the perfection problem for a long time! But I like the idea of going forward with kid’s vision. It’s better not to be afraid of doing something wrong.

  5. Sigh, I totally struggle with being overly perfectionistic at times, too (when I’m not being a total slacker, that is). Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Joelle

    Perfection is such a sweet trap. Yeah I said trap, because that is what it feels like. At least to me it feels that way. Writers can get caught up in a cycle of trying to be perfect and then never finish. Love that you’ve put on your kid vision goggles and are getting back to it. :)

  7. Sonje, that reminds me of what my father used to say: the hardest things to write are poetry and humor, because they can be ruined by a single wrong word. Everything else can have a wrong word here and there and still be fine.

    I think I let go of perfection so long ago that I don’t even remember it. There’s no way to publish serially and be a perfectionist. Stephen King talked about the mistakes in The Green Mile that only got fixed when it was published in a single volume.

  8. I don’t try for perfection, but I polish, squeeze my eyes shut and hope (doesn’t work). I do admire hard workers and perfectionists and try to work like that because it doesn’t come natural to me. I’m a trailblazer, I think. Actually, as I was mowing the lawn today, I thought about how satisfying it is to make perfect little lines in the grass, to get every sticky-outy blade. If only writing were as easy as manual labor. xx

  9. Les

    I try to tell myself to just spit the idea out and worry about making it awesome when I come back to edit, but I tend to get really hung up too. Also, my cursive is kind of messy so I hybridize my writing; a combination of printing and cursive.

  10. Trisha

    I am a recovering perfectionist myself. I get it.

  11. Jon

    Ugh, I totally know what you’re talking about. If it weren’t for my internal critic, I think I would be a much better writer. I am learning to turn him off at least during the first draft. Second and third drafts he becomes helpful, but trying to achieve perfection on a rough draft is near impossible.

  12. So true! I often think that the problems I encounter are from pushing myself to do it just so while writing the first draft without realizing that should be left for the editing process. Being a perfectionist is a good thing for a writer but not when you’re just trying to get through it. The child’s attitude is the best for early drafts, it will keep you in love with the story.

  13. What do we call someone who is not a perfectionist? Someone who stops at the 97% mark and says “good enough”? Maybe a goodenoughist? That’s what I am. I’m afraid I never quite finish things. I leave the last bite of food on my plate. I don’t put away my paintbrushes. I sent out First Reader copies of my book, sans chapter breaks.

    Your story about penmanship reminded me of elementary school, where one of my classmates had the most aggravatingly cute pages. Her paper was cuter than mine. Her pens had a nicer blue. She used a ruler and a red pen to run a double-line where the faded pink vertical line was. I tried to emulate her pages, but mine were never as cute.

  14. The only way I was able to write this summer was to let go of “perfection,” and get to basics. I have been doing true to God 1st draft rough writing and making myself move forward. It is so hard not to go back and revise already, but I am hoping for a finished first draft this year…

  15. Now, see I was the girl with the worst penmanship in class I remember getting a “D” in penmanship in Mrs. Cleveland’s 4th grade class. She called me up to her desk and asked, “Why does a pretty little girl like you write so ugly?” Ha!

    My penmanship is still worse than terrible…but I’ve certainly managed to put the “perfection” squeeze on myself in plenty of other ways. Great post!

  16. Wise words, Kristan. I have a similar perspective taken from an Anthea Paul book posted on my office wall. It’s titled “The Toddler’s Trick” and it says:

    Three-year-olds have no problem expressing themselves. They can paint and draw pictures endlessly. They do not seem to have a moment’s hesitation about what to put onto a canvas or a massive piece of paper. Give the tots a piece of paper and a paintbrush and they happily go straight to it, with nary a pause. Nor do they mind when they make a mess of the paint colors or tear the paper – they never judge their output.

    She goes on to say — as viewers we suspend judgment and simply enjoy the spirit of their art. We don’t say “Oh, you shouldn’t have used that color there,” or “Why did you make it so blobby in the corner?” We do not criticize. We bring our best selves to the table and are encouraging of their every effort.

    Many would say I write like a toddler. :) I just need to be as kind to myself and my (first-draft) writing as I would be to a toddler.

  17. Sonje-
    So true! That’s why poetry is so hard as well.

    Mandy-
    Hmm, I wonder if I should make “Stop that, you moron” goodies and sell them online… :P

    You and math? HEE.

    Shari-
    “but more important than perfection is doing what’s right for the story.” — Agree!

    Linda-
    Sometimes turning off the perfectionism leads to less slacking.

    Sarah-
    Love the mowing analogy. :)

    Les-
    But you prolly have that awesome architect’s handwriting, no?

    Jon-
    The Internal Editor/Internal Critic is eeeeeevil.

    Miss Rosemary-
    Exactly! Sometimes we feel like we have to get it all right on the first go-round, but the truth is, writing is EDITING.

    Tamara-
    97% is pretty darn good, lol. I’ve seen a lot of books that I think only made it to, like, the 60% mark.

    Pseudo-
    Good luck!

    Melissa-
    Ack, what an awful thing for her to say! But, lol, at least it makes for some laughs now.

    Juliann-
    Absolutely! We’ve got to learn to be as kind to ourselves as we are to others.

  18. I don’t think perfection is possible the first time around, leastways not for me. Because you’re right. Just getting the story out is what’s important. Greatness comes later, in the shaping and layers. Great post! :)

  19. (Dropping in somewhat late because I am totally reading this weeks after you posted…:P)

    1) Perfectionism is sometimes just another word for attention to detail. It’s a mindset, perhaps even a habit, and not something you can allow to overshadow everything else you do. Without ever striving for perfection, you might not grow or progress as much as you can with it. The trick is learning when the attempt to be perfect is helpful, and when it’s just an excuse to never try.

    2) Your handwriting might not be perfect, but it’s still a damn font. :)

  20. Mary-
    1) True, it’s attention to detail taken to an extreme. And you’re right, attention to detail in and of itself is not a bad thing. You’ve just got to walk the line.

    2) LOL thanks.

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