By Larry Kahaner
I’m thinking a lot about what I’ve done for a living during the past 30 years. As a writer, journalist and author (mainly non-fiction and now a novelist) I every so often come upon a sentence, a phrase, a thought about what it means to be a writer that strikes me hard where I stand. Usually, it’s something I learned that has helped turn me into a working writer.
I was reading a blog the other day by the folks at the art of storytelling and a sentence resonated with me. “Most new writers start as perfectionists and must unlearn this to become true writers.”
For sure. I’m lucky that I learned this early on while in the newspaper business where you didn’t have time to torment yourself over your precious words.
I’ve been harping about this issue for years. I even wrote a blog about it. I compared novelwriting to the AK-47 rifle. The AK, if you’re not aware, is the most used weapon in the world and it has several characteristics that make it so popular. It’s cheap, easy to make, easy to use — and it’s not perfect. Yes, that last one is a positive attribute.
I’m quoting here from my post:
“It’s not a precision, beautifully- constructed weapon like the U.S. M-16 rifle, but it did the job and, unlike the M-16, it didn’t have to be taken apart on a regular basis to be cleaned. In fact, the reason why the AK works so well is because it is not perfect. The parts don’t fit precisely together so dirt and gunk don’t accumulate in the mechanism. It just kicks out the muck and keeps firing.
One of the sayings in Kalashnikov’s Soviet Union was “Perfection is the enemy of good enough,” and I was reminded of this while reading Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s a great read for all artists including writers.
An important point the authors make is that many writers are stopped in their tracks because they’re trying to achieve perfection on the first go-around.”
When newish writers ask me for advice I tell them to write the best that they can, but don’t obsess over every word or even every sentence. You can never make anything you write perfect. It’s impossible. (For another take on letting go see Cristian Mihai’s blog on the subject.)
One of my mentors once gave me the following advice. “Anything that’s written can always be made better.” Once you understand and believe it, you can proceed with your work and not get caught in the snare of perfection.
Even the best writers offer flawed prose but hide it among solid, serviceable, engaging and compelling bodies of work.
By definition, I believe that writing – like any craft or art – is an imperfect endeavor so do the best you can in the time allotted, to the limit of your abilities, and then move on. I’m not advocating sloppy work nor am I in favor of quantity over quality (something I’m seeing too much of these days because the mechanics of self-publishing are way too easy) but don’t be afraid to let your novel fly away when you’re done. Mind you, if you know that your book has a major defect or hole, fix it. Don’t be lazy or frustrated with it. Do the work, and don’t release it into the wild, until its right.
Then let readers decide if your book is perfect or not.
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