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Week Eleven –
On Perfection and Perfectionism
You know that feeling, when you have an idea in your head, and you can see it, shining in all its glory, and there’s nothing you want more than to bring it into the world, for others to see as well, or at least for you to see with your own eyes? So you grab a pen, or a pencil, or a brush, or a guitar, and you work, tirelessly, carving the very fabric of the universe into your magical, beautiful idea. You work, and you work with the idea still burning in your head, and then you take a step back, to look at what you have created, and, well…
Feels familiar? Except in case of something that you thought up entirely on your own, it’s even worse, because you can’t even point to the picture on the left and say – well, I was aiming for THIS, it obviously needs work, haha, I promise they actually taste good, don’t mind the food coloring on the ceiling.
But working from an internal blueprint, you have no way of telling the world how glorious your idea looked in your mind, compared to the pale, sad imitation that is staring back at you from the paper or discordantly meowing from your headphones. So your only choices are to work and work some more, towards the shining beauty of your original idea, or release the paltry impostor of a product into the world, forever cringing at the knowledge that it can never measure up to the REAL thing.
If it’s any consolation, you’re not the first to feel this way, and you won’t be the last. In fact, it was Leonardo da Vinci who said that “art is never finished, only abandoned”. Whereas Salvador Dali declared, “Have no fear of perfection; you’ll never reach it.” Smartass. Me, I know which one of these I like better.
I can’t argue with the master, though. Not anymore, anyway. There was once a happy time in my life when I liked my first drafts. I’d write something, and it would be perfect. It would look on paper exactly like it felt in my head. Going through that text a day, a week, or a month later would have the same result – save for a few minute tweaks here and there, I liked it. There was nothing I wanted to change.
Going back to those pieces of writing now, I’m finding-
And here, you expect me to say that those stories sucked absolute ass, don’t you? Admit it. Admeeeeeet it.
Going back to those pieces of writing now, I’m finding they’re not bad at all, actually. The style of them is completely different from how I write now, but 90% of what I write is first-person POV, and my narrators back then had from almost-nothing to actually-nothing in common with my narrators now. So maybe I stumbled across a style that just worked for me, back then. Or maybe I’m sentimental enough about those pieces of writing (it was a time when life sucked a lot, and writing was my only outlet) to forever consider them good. Who knows.
Point is, I can’t do that anymore. I draft, and I draft, and over the years, I managed to get my drafting to the point when it (almost) doesn’t hurt anymore to write something with the knowledge that it’s completely scrappable, and its main purpose is to keep you writing further. I’m not saying I scrap all of my first-draft material – quite a large portion of it survives, actually. But knowing that it doesn’t HAVE to be perfect this time around, that it’s editable, changeable, and, indeed, if necessary, altogether scrappable – that knowledge helps to keep the first draft moving. (Not always. Otherwise I wouldn’t be taking a 1.5 month from my current novel right now. But it does help. Moving on.)
So, getting back to the big question:
If a work of art is never finished, only abandoned – when is the right time to abandon it?
The generally accepted idea is that you abandon your work of art when it’s better than it was when you started, but short of perfect. It’s a good rule, but what with you being your own judge, getting any kind of objective evaluation of the state of your work-in-progress is, well, to quote one Montgomery Scott, “like hitting a bullet with a smaller bullet, whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse”. But even when you can’t judge the quality of your work, you can judge how you feel about it, and yourself. So, with that in mind:
Don’t declare your piece finished when you think it’s the best thing ever, or, indeed, perfect.
Because chances are that, in your euphoria, you’ve overlooked some flaws that will become apparent later.
Don’t declare your piece finished when you hate it and can’t bear the thought of working on it anymore.
Because chances are, you’ve been staring at your work for so long that you tried to fix things that weren’t broken.
Don’t declare your piece finished when you’re tired and just want it to be done.
Because chances are, you’ve cut corners and did a rush job here and there.
When any of the above statements are true, the best course of action is:
Step back, call it a day/night, and look at your work with a soberer eye some time later.
As a bare minimum, wait until tomorrow. For projects that took you a week or two, give it a day. For projects that took you up to a year, give it up to a month. Take as long as you need, until you can look at your work without remembering every word or every brushstroke you put on the page. Then, and only then can you take your first shot at objectivity. You won’t be actually objective, after all – but you’ll have distanced yourself enough from the trees to see the forest.
And then you get to ask yourself the biggest question ever.
Is this good enough?
Can I make it better?
Will anyone else like it?
Does this measure up to other artists of similar level?
Have I done the best job that I can do today?
The time factor is important. However good a job you’ve done, you almost certainly can do a better one in the future, once you’ve practiced. Maybe you actually did worse than you could’ve done in the past. That also happens, because of life, and time, and age, and physical and emotional health.
D0n’t ask tomorrow!you. Don’t ask yesterday!you. It’s only today!you you need hold up your work to, and ask the above question. And if your answer to the above question is anywhere between “Yes, I did!” and “Um, I dunno, maybe…” – you’re probably okay.
Finish your work. Show it to people. Get feedback. Listen. Learn. And do better next time. Then repeat. Again. And again.
Until one day, you reach that ultimate place that every artist dreams of, one where you look at that shining, beautiful, perfect idea in your head, compare it to its real-world counterpart, and say…