Monday, December 10, 2007

On Perfectionism

Both the artist and the lover know that perfection is not loveable. It is the clumsiness of a fault that makes a person loveable.

Joseph Campbell

JAN: All I can say, is THANK GOD, because perfection is so far from my personality type, it's never, ever been an objective.I used to worry about that because achievement is about exceeding expections. Without only the highest expectations, how can you achieve excellence? Then I worked with an editor who was a sweetheart, but a perfectionist. He actually wrecked pretty much every article he got his hands on because he wanted it to be perfect. In the news biz, that meant answering every question. When I moved to a larger newspaper and I worked with a new editor for the first time, he said to me: "Jeez, I've never actually said this to a reporter before, but you have too many facts in here. Too much information."

You see, when an article tries to answer every question it becomes dense and unreadable. In fact, it loses its focus.

This provided three lessons that I found valuable in fiction writing. The first was: readers can only absorb so much information at once. Throw too much into a paragraph and no one gets anything from it. The second was that if you strive for perfection, you may not see the forest from the trees. And the third was that if you try to please every reader, you will please no one.

Personally, I haven't so much as struggled with perfection, as discovered my justification in not being a perfectionist. But I'm wondering, have any of you struggled with perfectionism? And what have you learned from the battle? Or do you have a completely different take on its value?

RO: I certainly don't strive for perfection in my writing. I'm hoping to be entertaining, pure and simple. In other, smaller areas, I sometimes try. I'm frequently disappointed but I keep trying. Examples? The perfect flower arrangement..I can happily try 8 or 9 vases before settling on the right one. I have been known to move cooked cranberries or blueberries with a toothpick to make the perfect arrangement in a tart. I've just about stopped making tart tatin because I can never get the apple slices to fan out perfectly.Roberta, have I just revealed a deep neurosis to the entire blogosphere?

ROBERTA: Ro, yes. But they probably already had that figured out:). I would so not move fruit with a toothpick in a tart. But I would worry about choosing the perfect words, all while knowing that isn't possible either! I think I've learned a lot from being in a writers' group. On the nights when I've sent chapters to be read ahead of time, I remind myself that I'm just going to listen to all the comments, take notes, ask questions, and otherwise keep my yap shut.

I think there's such a continuum of perfectionism--my family thinks I'm a nut about the house. Whereas I can practically see my neighbor's eyes bulge out when she stops over--dog hair everywhere, piles of shoes, stacks of mail...

Did anyone read the Science Times article on perfectionism this week? Interesting stuff:

JAN: Yes, it says perfectionism is at the root of many mental illnesses, including depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. So I'm feeling much better about being a slacker

HALLIE: I am so NOT a perfectionist, but I do know how to cut corners. Back in the day when I crocheted, I started an afghan and it ended up being a perfectly adorable pocketbook. I once watched Martha Stewart, the Princess of Perfection, ice a wedding cake and got inspired to try a recipe for a 12-layer dobos torte (12 thin cake layers, each baked on the BACK of a cake pan; mocha butter cream filling; a glaze of cramelized sugar on top.) Mine ended up with only 5, albeit delicious layers. It doesn't have to be perfect--adorable and delicious is good enough.

HANK: Yes, I'm the last to add. And it's just about deadline moment. And I was asking myself why I had waited til the last minute to post. Well, I wanted to think of the perfect thing to say, I replied.

And this internal dialogue happened with no sense of the irony involved.

Perfectionism is a truly complicated need. I'm a TV reporter of course. So I have worked for the past 30 years knowing I can NEVER make a mistake. Never be one minute late. Actually, not one SECOND late. Never choose the wrong word, never call someone by the wrong name, never make a math error, never have a bad hair day. You try that, and see if it doesn't make you a little crazy. And of course, to have chosen a profession where perfection is required, also may put me in some DSM-4 category that we will leave un-named.

But it does certainly carry over into my regular life. My holiday presents are wrapped beautifully. Moving a cranberry in a tart, as Rosemary described? Of course. I have discarded out-going mail envelopes because I put the stamps on crooked, or if I decided someone might think I was making some sort of a statement by my choice of stamps.

I could go on here, but I see you all shaking your heads. And hey,I can let go. It does not carry over into all realms. Don't even look in my dresser drawers. Or kitchen drawers. (I, too, have stacks. Of magazines. What's the 'perfect' thing to do with the ones you haven't read but might?)

But as I get happier, my need for perfection diminishes. (What can we learn from this?)

And when it comes to writing. You know, the sense of "perfection" is kind of--different. I's a sense of "right"-ness. For me, not for others. When it feels right, you know it. And that's a fun journey, not a struggle for perfection.
How do you know if you're pushing too hard?

JAN: I think we've nailed this topic, PERFECTLY, so to speak. And now that you all know I don't struggle with perfectionism, check in on Friday, when I reveal that I struggle with caramelism. Yes that's making home-made caramels for the holidays --at the last minute of course. A mental illness all its own.


  1. Confession. I just checked my blog entry to make sure it was, um, well, you know. And I found three typos. And I fixed them.

    But that's just being a responsible person.

  2. My mother, a wonderful person, does not swear. Except...when she makes a mistake on a piece of the seriously complicated Hardanger embroidery she creates. She doesn't seem to appreciate my suggestions to just leave it and call it "Artistic Discretion," either!

    You do NOT want to be around me when my brain goes into a loop and I forget that perfection is not a goal. The phrase "insane frenzy" come to mind. I work hard to avoid that state--when I was in college, I always finished papers and quit studying for exams the day before. Not because I was such a great student, or even ready, but because I could not, and still cannot, handle the stress level.

    As an editor and critiquer, working with other writers on multiple drafts of their manuscripts, I know that there is no such thing as perfect in a book. Anyway, who's perfect would that be? The author's? Mine? The agents or publishers? The child who will read the book?

    People ask me how you know when a book is finished. I faced this question for myself the first time this year, and I came to this conclusion. Assuming you've really, really rewritten and revised--taken big chunks apart, rewritten characters, taken a new path on the plot, all that wonderful stuff, here's how I think you know...when you realize that if you read through that book one more time, you will, literally, scream. And maybe tear out large chunks of hair.

    Is the book perfect? Of course not. Will you maybe need to make revisions, in a few months, for an agent or editor? Very likely. Does it feel, today, like the absolutely right time to send the manuscript out? Yes? Then do it. And start typing on Book 2, with all your fingers crossed!

  3. Rosemary, Hallie, Hank, Jan, and Roberta?

    You've all been tagged. :)

  4. Ah Nancy! I picture you giggling and laughing and hiding behind a tree to see what we all do now.

    What ever it is, it's gotta be orders of magnitude more fun than struggling, as I am now, with my new synopsis.

    And of course, if we're all "It" now, I must leave my hideous synopsis and find out what to do next. And that makes me the one giggling and laughing.


  5. Speaking of perfect..I was at the taping of the Martha Stewart show today for 5 hrs. it's the 25th anniversary of her book Entertaining which was published by my husband's old company. He was a guest, I sat and smiled for 5hours. Look for us on Dec. 14th's show. I'll be the one who's looking longingly at the food we didn't get to eat.

    Now that I'm tagged I feel like one of those big cats with a homing device stapled to its ear. Hank, since you're practically perfect in every way, I need you to tell me what it really means.

  6. Five hours to tape a half hour show, right? Welcome to television. Can't wait to hear more about it. (Okay, I admit, I love Martha.) Will we actually be able to see you in the audience? (I know, you're the one waving the bright yellow ARC of Pushing Up Daisies.)

    And Ro, who's practically perfect, cranberry tart girl? It's more about being an investigative reporter. Check Nancy's fabulous blog, Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life (a perfect perfect name I'm so bummed I didn't think of) and see what our new assignment is!

  7. As the fellow said who tagged me. . .bwahahaha.

  8. "The perfect is the enemy of the good." - Voltaire

    "Small imperfections are normal and part of the natural beauty of the fabric." - Clothing Label

    "Do Your Best." - The Cub Scout Motto

    "Dull Women Have Immaculate Houses." - My favorite refrigerator magnet

    OK, don't turn the logic police loose on that last one. My husband gave me that magnet, proving that he is perfect for me--but not as excruciatingly perfect as his mother thinks he is or I would have killed him by now.

    Those little imperfections (including perfectionism?) are part of the natural beauty of a person, real or fictional, but not so endearing in the plot of my story or a sentence I just can't get right. Which brings me to one of my FWQs (Favorite Writing Quotes):

    "The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug." - Mark Twain (the germophobe in the white suit)