The Pursuit of Perfection and how it Harms Writers

by eliwinfield in Uncategorized

This week I got my first review (five stars!  Yay!).

I also got my first critical feedback on North Watch Keep.  When I offered to fix the problem in the next edition, my friend’s reaction was classic:  “This is published! Leave it alone. This is about your Career, not this piece.”

And then she gave me this book:

The Pursuit of Perfection

If you write you need to read this book.  If you are a writer, you need to read this book and then you need to take her advice.  Write.  Make your writing the best you can, and then let it out into the world because it it your gift to share.  And then do it again.  And again.  And again.  It isn’t about one piece; it is about your Career.

Until my friend used the word Career, I hadn’t realized I was stuck in perfect (as Holly Lisle says) even though I have been afraid for years to let my work be read because I believed my manuscripts were not good enough.  They had too many typos, too many flaws and imperfections.  Even after publishing North Watch, I didn’t realize that I was still afraid my writing wasn’t perfect enough.

In her book, Rusch argues very convincingly that editing work to the point of structural perfection can destroy it.  Often it is the imperfections that are the writer’s heart, the voice of the piece, the parts that fuel the imagination of the reader.  The ‘workshop model’ is harmful to most writers, she argues, because it is based the pursuit of structural perfection  and editing to the point of perfect can take away the soul of the work.  There is a a very funny ‘workshop style’ criticism of Shakespeare’s work that made me ask what if she was right?  What would we have lost if Shakespeare had simply put his words away in a box, never to see the light of day?

When I started exploring how to become a better writer I went to a one day workshop with a local editor.  I thought the workshop would help me  figure out where I was stuck, help me somehow become a better writer or find an editor, but when I came home I felt unworthy.  The piece I wrote in the workshop was more of a vignette than a story;  I got criticisms about structure and style and told that it wasn’t a real story. I know I missed the fact my listeners were stopped dead by the emotion of the piece and made uncomfortable by the mourning.  There was that long moment of uncomfortable silence as they processed the feelings of the piece.  That night, while I was explaining to my husband that I that I should just give up on this dream of becoming a published author because I obviously wasn’t good enough, Youngest stomped down the stairs with the first draft of  North Watch Keep in her hands.

“Mom!  Why is the Old Man talking here?  He is dead!  You killed him at the beginning of the story.”  When I explained he was Fey,  she snorted.  “That is Not Clear.  Fix it.”  And then she stomped back up the stairs.She made me remember I was a writer because she saw the story in her head and it annoyed her that I had messed something up and taken her out of the movie.

Letting your writing out into the world is a lot like like letting your child go to Kindergarten.  You sit at home worrying because your child might not be perfect and the teacher might not like them and think you are a bad parent as a result.  Um,  reality check.  Your child is not perfect.  They are not supposed to be perfect; they are supposed to be growing and learning and exploring and becoming. Not everyone will like them and that is OK because they will find their friends. It isn’t as bad the second time around with child number two. I’m hoping the next book will be the same.  It won’t be perfect but it will be the best writing I know how to do.

I’ve been pondering why some people say that my writer’s group is ‘hardcore’ and I think it might be this:  we tell people what we like about their writing.  We aren’t mean.  We ask what people are working on and how it is going and for some accountability is intimidating, I guess.  I know that having to tell Preston about my progress or lack of it was what got me through the last push of Duodeca.   Mostly, though, we listen and tell others when their writing touches us in some way, where it works for us.  Rusch points out that the most terrifying moments in her own workshops are when she tells someone that their writing is ‘good enough to share’.  Most writers (myself included) panic when they hear that feedback, wondering when the audience is going to realize we are faking it and that we are just making it all up.  As Youngest laughingly pointed out to me:  you are making it up!  You are a writer.  That is what writers do–they make up tales.

Before he moved away for school we had a poet who regularly shared his work with the group.  His  poetry is beautiful– haunting and  inspiring–but he had a hard time when we introduced him to new members of the group as an author of beautiful poetry.  I was very sad he took down his blog from fear of political reprisals.  I wish the world was a place where writing was safe, where he didn’t need to fear governments because he wrote about things that matter to him.  I wish he would plant his flag and stand where his writing is taking him because his writing is beautiful.   And I understand his feelings, too, because I have struggled with the same thing when someone introduces me as an Author of amazing thrillers.

As I transcribe the writing that will become the next two books of short stories and the next novella (Yes Dear Reader, I finally found the first page tucked inside another story!  I have the whole book not just the second half!  You have no idea how excited I am about this!) and I write the next novel, I remind myself that I am an Author.   I am  building a career, one I have always wanted.  I have more than ten books in me (many more than ten books lol).  There are so many stories I have yet to share with you.  The goal is to play and learn and become and be authentic.  Authentic, not perfect.


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