Perfection and the writer

snow flake

snow flake

Is perfectionism warped creativity?

The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt

Thus spake Sylvia Plath, and she should know. I checked her out and found that she was eminently qualified to talk about self-doubt. She suffered from depression most of her adulthood, and surely depression and self-doubt share the same DNA?

And in spite of all that she managed a Pulitzer, even if it was posthumous. Makes me wonder what a supremely self-confident Sylvia would have managed.

In recent days, I have accepted that the compulsive quest to be perfect is pretty much the other face of the self-doubt coin. Whenever I write, I doubt myself, and that self-doubt makes me seek flawlessness. And we all know flawless doesn’t exist, which means I could be writing, doubting and perfecting for a long, long time, without achieving much, if I don’t watch it. Right, so far?

I am not sure when these realizations started creeping in; it was almost surely the result of getting brainwashed by propagandists like Sylvia Plath, Seth Godin and Isaac Asimov.

That man Seth Godin

Here’s what Godin has to say, and I concede that the guy has a point—a concession that comes after a great deal of internal struggle.

Any project that’s held up in general fear-based polishing is the victim of a crime. It is a crime because you’re stealing that perfect work from a customer who will benefit from it. You’re holding back the good stuff from the people who need it, afraid of what the people who don’t will say.

It seemed to me that using different words, both Plath and Godin were describing the same phenomenon. Fear-based polishing, indeed—I got the gist of that rather nifty turn of phrase straightaway. In my heart, I know I do a lot of fear-based polishing, and it is probably due to self-doubt. Which means my polishing is actually eroding my creativity.

I tend to be a perfectionist, which presumably means I am a chronic self-doubter. I now come to bury perfectionism, not to praise it. Well, not quite bury perfectionism. Maybe just put it in its place.

For a while, I tried to fight off Godin’s insidious effect on me. What did this bald egghead know that I didn’t? I checked him out, too. He’s just some kind of a nerd with degrees in philosophy and management, and a gift for the gab.

Thing is, this nerd has been prominent on my Feedly source list for months now, and I have read all of his recent posts. This nerd gets heard, and his gab grabs. And when I focused on the fact that Godin had actually written a few books that were well received, I began to waver. I read that quote up there again. That bit about stealing that perfect work from a customer who will benefit from it? More nifty phraseology. The more I thought about it, the more it jelled. Soon, it had me nodding in enlightenment. How could I be stupid enough to deny my customers the benefits of my perfect works?

But then… perfect works? I stopped nodding. I refocused on that word, perfect. How could Godin write about fear-based polishing holding up projects and perfect works in the same sentence? Surely, you can’t have the latter without the former? Maybe that nerd doesn’t know everything, after all.

The bicentennial man

I looked around for an answer, and found this gem from Isaac Asimov:

You are my idea of a good writer because you have an unmannered style, and when I read what you write, I hear you talking.

Bingo! It was almost like Asimov had been targeting me. No, I don’t mean I am Asimov’s idea of a good writer, I mean that Asimov might as well have been talking about me and my struggle with perfection, self-doubt, Plath and that man Godin.

These words of Asimov—a prolific writer himself—struck me like a bolt from the past with enough sizzle to actually set me thinking like a nerd. Like Godin. Unmannered style, he says? Oh yes. That works for me, it sounds great.

The imperfection of the search for perfection

The search to be perfect is itself imperfect. It is an imperfection because you just cannot define perfection perfectly. Try it, but before you do so, ask yourself a lead-up question: are you trying to define the concept as you see it, or as you think others see it?

I have chewed over the definition of perfect, and I have no answer. Instead, I have more questions.

Would you agree that ideally, the flawlessness you seek should exist not just in your own eyes, but also in the eyes of your readers and critics?

Do all of your readers and critics subscribe to your understanding of what it is to be perfect? Duh.

And what about being found perfect by your proofreaders, editors and ARC readers? Do they agree with your definition? And just as important, do they see eye to eye with your readers and critics?

It all boils down to this: it is not a perfect world. You cannot be a perfect all things to all people.

Here’s what it all boils down to. Asimov says, “You are my idea of a good writer because… when I read what you write, I hear you talking.”

In other words, if you write like you talk, you are Isaac Asimov’s idea of a good writer.

In normal conversation (meaning formal presentations to audiences are excluded) you don’t do much fear-based polishing. Almost invariably, you say what comes to mind, with minimal mental filtering and editing of your words.

Is writing more punishing than speaking? I think it is, and we choose to make it so. Speaking in very broad (and potentially controversial) terms, the writer is more self-conscious and takes more pains than the speaker, possibly because the writer has more time to take those pains before going public. I am not aware of any speaker who took months polishing a speech before he delivered it.

As the writer works, she is also obsessing over the marketing of her book. She tries to do her best to build up some kind of fan base if she doesn’t already have one; to build up that fan base if she already has one; and to build up keen anticipation in that fan base about her forthcoming book.

Further, the writer is bound by a whole library of nerve-wracking thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots in terms of things like spelling, grammar and punctuation. I am not sure if this issue has ever been studied, but I suspect one of the most prolific writing genres in history will turn out to be the how-to-write-well genre. Rather like internet marketers making money teaching you how to make money as internet marketers.

Once the writer has ensured her book obeys all the commandments she can remember, she has to accommodate more scrutiny and feedback from her proofreaders, her editors and ARC readers.

Is it to be wondered that by the time the writer has endured everything, she has quite forgotten how she talks?

Now where are we?

I have decided I am going to stop editing as I write. The truth is that often, I edit more than I write. Every few days, I go back to the beginning of what I am writing and do a rapid scan of the document, editing as I go, before I resume writing. In other words, I am an obsessive compulsive editor with a writing disorder.

No more search for perfection. I am already writing perfection. How could I even think of depriving my customers of my perfect works?

Imperfection is fashionable?

Let me wrap up with a quote from Yojhi Yamamoto:

I think perfection is ugly. Somewhere in the things humans make, I want to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion.

Now how do you like that?

How about you? Anything you feel we should be giving up on? Maybe you think we should give up on Plath, Godin, Asimov and Yamamoto?

  • Jon Jefferson

    Well said. Right now I feel like in the process to follow all the rules and ensure we are perfect by these standards we have forgotten how to share a good story with those around us. Even worse, we spend our time retelling the stories of others to try and achieve the perfection we feel they failed at.

    Maybe it is time to let go and allow creativity to have freedom again in our work and our lives.

    • venkyiyer58

      Oh yes, Jon, it is well past time. Of all the quotes I have used in my post, the one by Yamamoto had the most impact. It suggests that a wart or two distinguishes the human from the machine.

Perfection and the writer

by Venkatesh Iyer time to read: 6 min