the perfect is the enemy and other thoughts on writing

I have a little meta-reflection on writing my recent post about the walled-off internet. These thoughts are not specific to the topic; it could have been anything. As it happens, writing that post brought up some truisms about the writing process - one negative and one positive. Perhaps they are familiar to you.

The first is that old bugaboo that haunts many a creative effort: The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good. In this case a related pitfall was also at work: There's No Such Thing as Definitive.

I had wanted to write this post for months. I keep a short list of topics I'm trying to get to, and some ideas will stay on the list for weeks or months, especially if they're not timely or pegged to an event. This idea - called "walled-off internet" on my scraps of paper - stayed on the list for ages. The longer it sat there, the more difficult it became to write.

I started to feel as if I had to gather every scrap of evidence, research every corner, become a minor expert on the topic, before I could write. (Definitive.) And the post had to be an Important Post, a Best-Of Post, it had to be Great. (Perfect.)

That's a big mountain to climb. For such a project, I would need a massive block of uninterrupted time, I would need to feel on top of my game, I would need... all kinds of things that I don't have. I'm not ready to tackle such an undertaking!

So the item sat on the list, unwritten.

This was happening subtly, subconsciously. That's how our creative processes begin, I believe. Discovering them, digging them up and bringing them to the surface, we begin to understand them and work with them, instead of letting them control us.

The second, happier writing truth that I encountered was something I call The More You Write, The More You Write. (When I say truism and writing truth, I'm referring to my own experience. I know these feelings are familiar to many people trying to do anything creative, but I'm not implying they're universal.)

As "walled-off internet" mouldered on my topics list through the fall semester, eventually I decided I'd write it over my winter break. That offered an escape from the Perfect and Definitive traps. I told myself, I don't have time to write such a massive post during the school term. I'll put it on the winter-break list.

Then winter break came, and I was busier than I wanted to be - new library job, getting ready for Quebec trip, long list of errands and appointments - but also tired, a bit burnt out. I just couldn't get my mind in gear to write. I was totally unmotivated. All I could do was look at those two topics (there's another one!) on that list and wonder when the hell I'd ever write them.

Then school started. Now I'm busier, but my brain is re-engaged. I'm thinking and writing for school. And lo and behold, suddenly I am motivated to write - not just for school, but for myself, for wmtc. Because... The More You Write, The More You Write. Writing primes the pump for more writing.

In the great musical "A Chorus Line," which deals with the struggle for artistic success and recognition, there's a line, "I'm a dancer, a dancer dances". It's a simple lyric, but loaded with meaning. The singer - not a star, just one of the legions trying to get any dancing job - is asserting her identity, and equating her identity with this creative act. She sings, "All I ever needed is the music and the mirror" - because to be a dancer, to claim this identity, she doesn't need fame or even a job, she needs only to dance. The more she dances, the more she is a dancer... and a dancer dances.


Amy said...

I am all too familiar with both truisms. Every time I write an article for a legal journal, I cannot seem to let it go until it is perfect and definitive. And of course, it is never either. I usually reach some point where I say, "Well, it's not perfect and it's not saying anything that hasn't been said before, but damn it, I am sick of it and I am done with it." Then I send it off to journals, hoping someone will publish it. Someone always has (so far).

I know that my subjective view is accurate: nothing I have written is perfect or even great, nothing I have written has changed the world or maybe even anyone's mind about anything. But I have learned to accept that whatever it is is good enough.

allan said...

If the post has to be definitive, then it has to be long - which presents its own troubles. You can say "a journey of a thousand miles, etc. ..." to yourself, but, really, where and how do you begin?

The good thing is that no one is waiting for the post so you don't have to bang it out in a perfect first draft - and all the shit you type out at first will never be seen by anyone.

I have a few posts that fall into this category. One is explaining why I do not have advertising on my blogs. I have been saying I want to write about this for at least three years! A few weeks ago, I fleshed out some notes. Maybe when I realize that it does not need to be a 10,000-word manifesto on advertising and websites - all it has to do is clearly state my few reasons - it'll appear.


As far as accepting whatever you write as good enough, one of the best things about finishing "1918" was that I discovered I liked the final manuscript. I was not expecting to be satisfied, so that was a really nice feeling. It is far from perfect, there are some things I'd like to re-do a bit, some things that are missing, but I like what I did.

laura k said...

I am more troubled by Must Be Definitive than Must Be Perfect. I don't have enough patience to be a perfectionist.

laura k said...

one of the best things about finishing "1918" was that I discovered I liked the final manuscript.

That is awesome. Seriously. Since I witnessed Allan's struggles trying to write his first book - how badly he beat himself up - this is pretty damn great.

Amy said...

That is great, Allan. I usually am too bothered by the things I don't like about what I write to enjoy the things that I do like about the various articles. It always feels good when someone else cites what I have written, but I am always my own worst critic.

Frankly, I am so impressed with people, like the two of you, who regularly write blog posts---posts that are not only well-written, but thought-provoking and enjoyable to read. Kudos to you both!

laura k said...

Wow, thank you, Amy, that's so nice of you to say.

It's really a shame that you're so hard on yourself. I see the weaknesses in everything I write - I know what it's not - but I balance that with recognizing and focusing on my strengths. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to write.

johngoldfine said...

One of the wonderful things about teaching online is that I have an immediate and critical audience the moment I comment on a student piece--what I say has to be helpful, honest, somewhat definitive (while leaving the door open for the student's possible disagreement with what I'm saying.) I like the pressure of those various and sometimes conflicting demands immensely.

laura k said...

That's one of the great things about writing online, too. At least blogging. In other venues, especially those not moderated, the feedback is not as useful!

Amy said...

Laura, I am not that hard on myself with many other things. I believe I am an excellent teacher, and I don't beat myself up at all about things that don't go just right in a class. When it comes to writing, I know that I write clearly, I know that I use proper grammar, etc., and I know that I generally make sense. But I do doubt the ultimate value of what I write. That may say as much about the general value of any legal scholarship as it does about my own.

And you're welcome!

laura k said...

Amy, that's great to hear.

I want everyone to be good to themselves and value themselves. It's one of my missions in life!

juna said...

Clearly this discussion stayed on my mind for some time. Re: a writer writes (a dancer dances), I find that not writing for several days can be immobilizing. Another argument for spilling words on to the page (or squeezing them out if necessary) on a daily basis. I'm finding that blogging is moving me in that direction.