Alexander Hellene

Perfect is a Dirty Word

By Alexander Hellene

I get asked every once in a while if I ever read my own work after it’s been published. To which I have to ask, “For what reason?” If it’s to edit, of course. One’s first draft is rarely, if ever, good enough to share with the world. If it’s for continuity’s sake, in the case of writing a book series where you want to make sure that character traits and descriptions, physical locations, and events discussed in one book are consistent throughout the entire saga, then sure. But in that case, “rereading” usually consists of a whole lot of CTRL+F to find the pertinent bits.

Otherwise, if the questions is whether I read my own work for pleasure, I’ll have to paraphrase Pete Townshend and remind everyone that I’m too old to play with myself.

Because that’s what reading one’s own work feels like. Even when I read one of my blog posts occasionally, I’ll feel a little dirty. Aren’t there other, better things to read written by other people? Isn’t the enjoyment and, yes, satisfaction gained from reading works created by others more pleasurable than reading my own?

Even worse, the times I do reread my own stuff, I find things I’d like to change, and not just typos. Syntax choices I cringe at. Over-writing here, under-writing there. Places where the dialogue could’ve been punchier, this joke better, that description more concise. It’s enough to drive you crazy.

In my music-playing days, we’d listen to recordings of practices or shows, or even stuff we’d lay down in the studio, in order to pinpoint areas of improvement. Oh boy, listening to a concert that felt great at the time, that everyone in the audience really seemed to like, could be a masochistic endeavor. “I rushed here.” “You missed that fill.” “A few bum notes in that run.” “Your guitar was slightly out of tune.” “Those harmonies . . . ouch.”

And so on.

But you know what? Everyone had a good time and enjoyed themselves, the venue sold a bunch of drinks, and maybe we made a little bit of money to boot. Everyone was happy. Except my waistline from eating too much fast food traveling from show to show.

Writing is the exact same way. As a creator, you’ll always find faults with your creation. I think you have a few choices about how to proceed that I’ll mix media to try and explain: You can overdo it like George Lucas shoehorning awkward ex post facto additions into his movies many decades after the fact; you can endlessly tinker like Frank Zappa, remastering and reengineering older albums and, in some cases, overdubbing the bass and drum parts from some 1960s albums with members of his 1980s band both because a) there was some sort of royalty dispute and b) he thought his old bands were bad musicians; or you can take the Paul McCartney approach which was “Eh, there are things about this album I’d love to change, but whatever. On to the next one!”

I’m paraphrasing, but that imaginary Paul McCartney quote is my personal motto when it comes to most anything I do: On to the next one.

Perfect is a dirty word. If you’re worried about making everything diamond-flawless, you’ll never get anywhere. Back to music: Roger Waters of Pink Floyd was notorious for this, and yet even he managed to write, release, and record twelve albums in the 16 years he was active with the band as a recording unit. And his bandmates hated him. He hated them too. There’s another lesson there. The aforementioned Paul McCartney was the same way. The notoriously lazy John Lennon and the notoriously moody George Harrison often couldn’t stand the perfectionist Paul McCartney and his drive to make the band’s songs great. And even he was insanely prolific. Only Ringo—good old Ringo—seemed to be cool with it all.

Enough music talk. I looked up some quotes about perfectionism in writing because I’m a deep well of knowledge like that and found a few good ones. Here’s a bit from a woman called Anne Lamott I know nothing about because I’m too lazy to look her up:

 Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

I like this, especially the part of perfectionism being the “main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” I tell writer friends looking for motivation this same thing all the time: just write the damn draft. Finish your manuscript. That is the hard part. The rest is not easy, but it’s a bit easier. There is a difference.

Gamblers, the good ones, don’t get hung up on an individual hand. They’re looking to play more winning hands than not over time. When you’re at the craps table, there are certain bets you make that are more likely to than not to pay out based on the probabilities of the die rolls. People with the patience and self-control to make money on these stupid games know that it’s all luck, but you can kind-of sort-of weigh the scales of fortune in your favor. But at the end of the day, it’s still a roll of the dice.

Such is your creation.

Nailing down a perfect method by listening to the perfect podcasts who give the perfect hacks for writing the perfect book is a waste of time. It is procrastination, which in the realm of the creative arts is another word for self-love.

Here’s another quote about perfectionism and procrastination I found from a book you might’ve heard of:

He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.

Ecclesiastes 11:4

That’s it for this post. On to the next one.

– Alexander

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