Letting Go of Perfection

This post Letting Go of Perfection was written for Linda Green’s fantastic book blog, Books of All Kinds, which you can visit (and I recommend you do!) here: http://booksofallkinds.weebly.com/

“My book, it’s perfect. It’s all there; it’s unsullied. But as soon as I start to write it, it just gets less and less perfect, and in the end I’ll have ruined it just by writing it.”

Does this sound familiar? It did to me when I sat in the theatre as a sixteen-year-old, watching Alan Ayckbourn’s 2005 play, Improbable Fiction, with my parents. This line perfectly articulated that private, almost paralysing paranoia that stunted most of my writing efforts at the time.

I sat open-mouthed in the audience, realising for the first time why I never got to the end of anything: Once I had an idea that I loved, I was terrified of messing it up by rendering it imperfectly. I was seduced by the shiny joy of a fresh narrative, a new character, the untapped potential of an embryonic plot. I cherished a crisp empty notebook, bought specially and ready to be filled, a blank page, a new pen.

I used to hate the phrase ‘Done is better than perfect’. It seemed invariably to paraphrase itself in my head to, ‘Lower your expectations’ or, ‘Settle for mediocrity’. To my rigid, brittle, perfection-seeking young mind, it sounded like accepting second best, or worse: giving up on a dream.

I have written intensely my entire life, or at least, since I was old enough to put pen to paper. Over the years though, I noticed my passion for writing gradually begin to become a part of that larger, weightier shadow of perfectionism that hovered over everything else I did. My unfinished novels and poems were like black holes in the Milky Way, a negative space that pulled the light in. I never felt that anything was good enough, and so I never finished anything.

I remember sitting on Porthcurno beach in Cornwall, in my early teens, sketching alongside my Granny and my Great Aunt, both professional artists. As we drew, my Granny said, with absolute earnest sincerity, ‘The most important thing about art is that while you’re doing it, you musn’t worry at all about whether or not it is any good.’ She delivered this to me as an important fact, and this astonished me, because at that age my head was full to the brim with this exact worry, in every aspect of my creative life.

Rough Sea
Rough Sea at Hove by my wonderful Granny, Juliet Wheeler

When I was twenty-two, I was working with a researcher called Dan, who one day revealed to me while we made coffee in the office kitchen, that outside of work, he had just directed and finished his first feature film. He asked me if I wanted to watch it. Of course I did. I spent that evening at home in my flat enjoying the fruits of his labour.

Sure, there were a few issues with it: He was clearly inexperienced; the actors were great but not amazing; it had been made on a shoestring budget. But there were flashes of real brilliance, moments of utter beauty and sensitivity, an incredibly clever script, and a genuinely interesting idea at its heart. I remember being as impressed by the fact that here was a finished, completed, entire feature film, as I was by the film itself.

When I spoke to Dan about his work, his approach stunned me. He told me that he loved directing and making fims, and that his ambition was to be a ‘really run-of-the-mill, mediocre, middle-level, average director’. He said it partly for comic affect, but I could sense an element of truth behind his words. I could see how this less precious approach had freed him up, loosened him from the intense, self-critical, creative constipation that I was suffering with.

On top of this, I could see that by finishing a film, he had learnt more about filmmaking than he would ever have learnt by starting and then dropping ten separate ideas. By completing the process, he had come into contact with each and every stage of it. He had come to terms with the ratio of 10% inspiration to 90% execution and delivery, and most importantly, he had lived through the experience of that gap between your vision, and your creation.

And this gap is the crucial bit, because that’s the bit we need to practise: it’s only by repeating the whole process, that we stand any chance of reducing the distance between our intentions and the reality of what we are able to produce.

A little snapshot of my bookshelf

If you are a talented, gifted writer, with the potential to write an incredible book, that’s quite a heady place to be. And just so long as you don’t finish anything, you can stay there quite comfortably. If you throw yourself into the process from start to finish, you will inevitably come up against your own shortcomings, areas of weakness, problems that need to be worked through, external criticism, and even errors of creative judgment.

There will be times where you will think ‘maybe I’m not so good at this after all’. In those moments, it will feel so easy to retreat to the lure of a sparkling new idea, a different one, something untainted by your efforts, something that will allow you to reclaim your identity as a gifted writer with potential. The problem with these repeated introductions, is that you are only ever practising how to start something. You are constantly learning how to begin. To be brutal, the beginning is the easy bit: it’s the rest of the process that requires the most work.

I have realised that letting go of perfection doesn’t mean settling for something less, or lowering your expectations. It is subtler and kinder than that. It means relaxing the vice-like grip that you might be strangling your own writing attempts with; it means realising that your initial idea is a malleable sketch, a faint blueprint that will inevitably evolve and grow as you dive into its detail.

In order to develop as a writer, the experience of the process is as important as the piece of writing itself. Try to view each piece you finish as a lesson, a stepping stone, a waypoint along your journey. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even have to be good. But it should teach you something.

Take the legendary, triple-Michelin-star chef Massimo Bottura, whose story begins with him being fired from his first proper job, or Sir Richard Branson, who almost declared bankruptcy during the early days of Virgin, or – of course – the initial rejections that J.K.Rowling received for Harry Potter. What unites successful, inspirational people, is not their superhuman ability to be pitch perfect winners at every stage of their life, it is their willingness to have an open and honest relationship with failure.

Beautiful marbling by my Great Aunt Colleen Gryspeerdt, that decorated a collector’s edition of letters from T.E. Lawrence


What you write next will probably not be perfect, but you have the power to make sure that it contains something valuable, something that you can learn from. Alan Ayckbourne’s Improbable Fiction is a great example of this: I didn’t actually love the play, and I don’t think it is one of his best works, but it afforded me the nugget of self-awareness that I began this post with, a line from a character that travelled straight to my sixteen-year-old heart, drowning in unfinished stories.

The next few books you read, imagine you had written them. Look for a sentence you might change, for the parts of a story you might shift slightly, a different tone of voice that could work better in a certain scene. Don’t do it with every book of course – it would ruin the joy of reading! – but just for a short time, extend the same harsh level of criticism and self-doubt that you load onto your own shoulders, on published works.

I guarantee you will find that very few books are entirely without fault, or room for improvement. And you know why? Because the differences between us are too great and too interesting. We won’t ever unanimously receive a piece of writing in the same way. We don’t arrive at a novel with identical personal contexts; we each carry different histories, experiences, and reference points.

You can’t write the perfect book, but instead, if you’re lucky, you can be a part of the conversation. For that to happen though, you will need to finish speaking, to complete the thing you are trying to say, to let go of perfection and find your way to The End.

Good luck!

[Main Image: Drawing by Barbara Hepworth, who in my view got pretty close to perfection.]

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