Perfectionism: Friend or Foe?

Perfection—whether in language or in storytelling or both—is one of those concepts that can get in an aspiring writer’s way. Trying to attain it can lead to creative paralysis.

That’s why the most liberating chapters in any book about writing may be the third and fourth ones in Anne Lamott’s classic, Bird by Bird. They are titled “S—-y First Drafts” and “Perfectionism.” Here are two passages from those chapters.

“Almost all writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up.”

And, “Perfectionism. . . .is the main obstacle between you and a s—-y first draft. . . .If you want to write . . .you probably won’t be able to get very far if you don’t start trying to get over your perfectionism.”

One of our leading local literary lights spoke recently at the Library. Michael C. White is a novelist as well as an English professor and the founder/director of the MFA program in creative writing at Fairfield University. He read from his latest work, Beautiful Assassin (William Morrow). During the subsequent question-and-answer session, White responded to a question of mine thusly:

“Perfectionism is a great quality for a writer to have.” He said his undergraduate students mistakenly think that the first draft should be it. He said that the first 200 pages of his book went through countless drafts—not total rewrites each time, but continual alterations. The analogy White uses to illustrate the process is a personal one. His father, White said, was a carpenter who worked on houses. When planing a board, the father would go over and over the wood with his tool, time after time, until finally he achieved the perfect smoothness he wanted.

Of course, writing a novel, White said, is not like building a house, where there are clear architectural drawings to follow. “In writing a novel, you hit dead ends, from which you have to back out and go another way.”

What does perfectionism entail?

Actor and writer Stephen Fry wrote a cover story for Time about the new Apple iPad a few weeks ago. One of the Apple employees he interviewed was Jonathan Ive, who designed the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone prior to the iPad.

“Ive’s focus and perfectionism are legendary,” Fry wrote. “Any conversation with him is about hours of work, about refusing to be satisfied until the tiniest things are absolutely right. He’s most pleased with what consumers will never notice. He wants them to use the iPad without considering the thousands of decisions and innovations that have gone into what seems like a natural and unmediated interaction.”

Change a few of the words. Here is what you get:

“Any conversation with a successful writer is about hours of work, about refusing to be satisfied until the choice of words is absolutely right. He’s most pleased with what readers will never notice. He wants them to read the book without considering the thousands of decisions and innovations that have gone into what seems like an effortless and absorbing story.”

Now, isn’t that what we should be striving to achieve?

I don’t think Lamott is telling us to be satisfied with less than our best effort. Rather, like White’s father and his plane and board, or like Ive and his iPad, she is saying you need to make multiple passes at your story for it to have the smoothness and beauty you want your reader to experience.

—Alex McNab

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Published in: on April 22, 2010 at 12:47 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Hear! Hear! Great blog post Alex, very inspiring.


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