Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Perfectionism is the Enemy

When I had just started secondary school one of the English teachers - the cool one under thirty who wore mini-skirts and who we all wanted to impress - set this essay title: If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly. I didn't understand what it meant, so when I got home I asked my mother. She snorted. Ridiculous! They've got it wrong - if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing well. This was what I expected her to say, having been told off enough times for my poor standards regarding the washing up and tidying my bedroom.* Confused, I chose a different essay title.

But the original title bothered me. What could it mean? I didn't work it out until much, much later when I started to see people not even try, in case they failed. I'd encourage them to send their work to creative writing competitions or out to agents, only to have them demur and say things like: it's not ready yet. I spoke to a student recently who was frozen. Complete writer's block. She couldn't write in case what she wrote wasn't perfect.

But the first wonderful thing about creative writing is that there is no such thing as a perfect piece of writing. You can't fail, because there is no absolute standard of perfection. Everybody's had the experience of being recommended to read a book, only to discover it leaves them cold. For example, I love the opening to Captain Corelli's Mandolin, but I know it puts other people off. And The Da Vinci Code wasn't a page turner for me, more a yawn maker.

So write. Write what you like. Write lots. Try this, try that. Throw away what you don't like, keep what you do. If you've got something you want to say, say it, and stuff the way it's written. Give yourself permission to write badly. And if you're aspiring to get published (and not everyone is) then send it out when you've got to the point of tinkering round the edges. Don't wait until it's perfect, because it never will be. Write, write, then write some more. If writing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly. Apart from anything else, the second wonderful thing about creative writing is you can always go back and edit.

*I gave up on domesticity early on, totally discouraged by failing against my mother's high standards. With my own children, I praised any domestic attempts to the sky, hoping to encourage them. It failed. They do as little domestically as I did. I don't know if this proves anything apart from no one wants to do the washing up.


Blossom said...

Hi Sarah,

Chris Evans has just said on Front Row that you don't get good by accident – it takes work. And I guess that's what writing is all about – work, lots of it. No, it won't be perfect, but it will get better and hopefully we all find our own voice. But it won't happen by accident. I never thought I'd say it, but I'm quite looking forward to Chris Evan taking over from Sir Tel now!

As I'm now off work and getting my WIP in shape to send out next week, I'm going to reply to some of your previous blogs that resonated with me.

Hope you have a good Christmas.

Sarah Duncan said...

Hi Blossom

He's right (and I'll have to listen again to Front Row). But don't forget the work should also be fun and absorbing, not miserable and guilt inducing.

Good luck with getting the WIP into shape - I love this stage - and with sending it out.

Happy Christmas!

Blossom said...

You're so right ... if you don't find it fun and absorbing, then I guess readers won't either.

Now to Spooks!