The Good, the Bad and the Perfect

I'm still having quite a lot of trouble with getting this next chapter off the ground. I'm making my quota of a page-a-day (just), but it's been a real struggle this past week. Although I always have trouble with beginnings, I'm nevertheless a bit surprised that starting chapter 3 has proved to be such a hurdle, particularly after chapter 2 went so well. Writing yesterday's post helped a little bit, but more in retrospect than actually at the time. I want so very much for this book to be good. No, not just good; really, really good, and I just don't know whether my writing skills are up to it. Of course, that's the interesting thing about skills: they never are--up to it, that is--not, at least, until you test them. My writing skills weren't up to writing my first book, but somehow I managed to do it. The skills come when we let them, I suppose. If we wait until we're ready to do something, we'll be waiting forever. "Ready" is something we'll never be. The only thing to do is to take the plunge.

Okay, so I'm in the water. Now what? My friend Badger is trying to encourage me to continue taking risks; it's all too easy, as she rightly points out, to fall into complacency, doing only the things we are good at and never risking doing something we can't. My sister has a great saying along these lines: "Don't allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good." Don't stop yourself from trying just because you are not going to be able to do something perfectly; don't mistake the good for failure just because it isn't perfect. Julia Cameron has put it this way: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." So, yes, it is okay to try something and not be the best; it is even okay to try something and not do your own best. I know, I know, I cringe even as I write this, but you know it's true. Sure, "anything worth doing is worth doing well," but this is simply to judge the doing before one has even started. Nobody ever did anything perfectly the first time. Or even the hundredth.

So why am I still trembling? Because it's hard letting go of the desire to be the best, so compulsively do we in our culture insist upon it. Because the principal message that we hear, over and over again, more or less from the time that we are born, is that we should do our best. Because we live in a society where success is something that can be measured, where measurable success is the whole point. Because my father always insisted that if my siblings and I would put our heads together, we could make a million dollars (we haven't). Okay, so it was just something he used to say, presumably to encourage us, but it did set us a fairly improbable, not to mention spiritually inappropriate standard. Nor does it help that money is the criterion by which success is always ultimately judged in our society. As they say, the bottom line is...the bottom line.

I am also oppressed by a line that I remember from some Katherine Hepburn movie or other. It was in black-and-white and Hepburn was wearing slacks. I can't remember who played her leading man or what the plot was supposed to be, other than that it had something to do with journalism. She is chiding him about what he has done with his life as a writer, and when he says he has published several books, she responds, "That's not much to have accomplished when one is almost thirty," or words to that effect. I had only just finished my dissertation by the time I was 29 and in my field, ironically enough, that counts as early. My first book did not come out until, in Hepburn's terms, I was clearly far over the hill, an aged 37. And, yes, these things matter. Time to dissertation. Time to first book. How else do we judge, as hiring or fellowship committees, how likely it is that someone is going to complete the work that he or she has proposed? But it eats into us, nevertheless.

This isn't what I had meant to write about in this post, but clearly it's preying on my mind, distracting me from the things that I actually meant to say. About how the challenge of all art is in discarding what does not belong. About how what makes writing as difficult as it is is not so much finding what to say as recognizing what not to say. About acknowledging my panic at the moment as a product of having learned so much about devotion to the Virgin that I am never going to be able to use it all. As the saying goes, "Less is more." Which is very hard to accept when we are always taught to go for more: bigger houses, bigger salaries, longer publication lists, greater prestige. No wonder our art withers and dies. What wouldn't under such heat? And yet, and yet, I refuse to believe that it is impossible for me to have such success. Why not? Others have. It is, after all, the great promise of our society: "Come to America where you can make something of yourself! What are you waiting for? Look, here's another ordinary person, just like you, who has made it big!"

My husband likes to say that life is a chromatography column. Over time, people separate out. Some go on to great success, others simply don't. Most people fall somewhere in-between. But we are a society that thrives on superlatives and we are not terribly comfortable with simply being good--or bad--at something. We want to be the best and will do everything we can to find some way of describing ourselves that way, however ridiculously qualified the description must be. "The best ice-cream west of the Mississippi." "The largest chapel in Illinois." "The most books sold in the month of July." "The best student in 2010." "Most improved." Imagine a world in which we could simply say, "This ice cream tastes good. This chapel is beautiful. I enjoyed reading this book. I learned something this year. I wrote a page today." Now that would be something to brag about, wouldn't it?


  1. Being a practical sort, that I am, my comment is one I think I've made earlier: remember that this is a draft. It isn't the time to be perfect. It isn't the time to be good. It is the time to try -- to try whatever it is that feels right. Then, only then, when you can look at it, examine it, turn it this way and that for still a different view, can (or is that should?) one worry about what needs to be fixed, what needs to be changed, what needs to be nurtured, and what (once written and out of 'the system') needs to be edited away. You are at an incrediably free place in your work, in some respects. You have tenure. You have the respect of peers and colleages. You have a fertile and creative mind and the chance to let it roam. And the absolute best thing: if you don't like what you've written as your mind is playing and challenging itself, you don't have to show anyone! Okay, I've said more than anyone should. So, I'll leave it with: be strong and trust yourself.

  2. You know, I'm sure that this is precisely one of the reasons I am so frightened right now: I have absolute freedom to do whatever I want! It was much easier back in the day when my teachers were giving me the assignments. Even writing for tenure had a clear deadline. Now, the sky's the limit--and that is much too high for me. ;)

  3. "The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened. It's only the middle-aged who are really conscious of their limitations - that is why one should be so patient with them. But one never is."


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