Saturday, June 1, 2013

Perfection: the graveyard of ideas

When I opened an app on my iPhone this morning to check my to-do list for the day, this quote by Voltaire popped up.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Yes, it’s a smartphone, but how did it know what I needed to hear today?

Writers should chant this line from Voltaire every time they sit down at their desks. I don’t know about the rest of you, but there is this harpy in my head who is always nagging, “Don’t you dare write that sentence down until you’re 100 percent absolutely positively certain that it’s the most perfect sentence anyone has ever written in the entire history of literature.”

And since perfection does not exist—not for me, not for you, not even for Shakespeare or the entire winners’ list of the Nobel, Pulitzer, and Newbery awards combined—when I make the mistake of listening to that harpy, nothing gets written.

Old Calton Cemetery in Edinburgh, Scotland
(c) Infrared photo by Nancy Butts

The poet Sylvia Plath wrote this in her poem “The Munich Mannequins.”

Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.
Cold as snow breath, it tamps the womb...

The quixotic quest for perfection in our work does indeed “tamp the womb,” keeping us from writing stories that may not be perfect, but are good enough nonetheless to inspire, delight, and transport readers.

The cure? Give yourself permission to write dreck, at least on that crucial first draft. What’s important is that you get the ideas out of you and safely onto the page. Those words and ideas are going to be far from perfect, but you’ll have plenty of time to make them better during revision. And that’s where most of the real work of writing gets done anyway.

So go write something awful today. 

[PS: I got so carried away with this topic that I couldn't keep from writing a longer article on this topic, with some suggestions for how to work around it. Jump over to my website for a peek.]


mountain girl said...


I have to say, I needed these quotes about perfection today. And every day. In both my writing and my artwork, the need for perfection seals me up tightly, keeps my pen full and my paper dry.

Thank you so much for writing this--I am loving Spontaneous Combustion (both the book and the blog).

I need to visit you here more often!


Nancy Butts said...

Mia, it lights up my whole day that you found this post, and my book, helpful to you in your own creative life. I need to remind myself of this over and over, because each time I sit down to write a new page, that old devil of perfection stops me up.