I Defend Perfectionism

Posted on August 24, 2012 by

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Veronica Roth is the author of the phenomenally popular -ərgent YA series (Divergent, Insurgent, and the as-yet-untitled third book, which I’m betting they name Convergent). I don’t particularly dislike Roth’s writing – but it doesn’t have the same impact on me as, say, Kurt Vonnegut.

This is comparing apples to Magritte, you say.

Oh, I would never dream of contradicting you. There’s no real or comfortable way to directly compare Roth’s writing to Vonnegut’s – and yet she does, if obliquely.

1. A first draft will always, always, always need to be revised, and possibly rewritten. This cannot be avoided.
2. Perfectionism harms the creative effort, not just because it impedes progress, but because it restricts the [sic.] creativity itself.

Or, to put it simply: perfectionism actually makes your art (whatever it is) suck more.

From an interview with Sidney Offit about Kurt Vonnegut:

I know he was a perfectionist because his waste basket was constantly overflowing. One thing: he would not submit to editing. He could not handle it. When he finished a book, it was done. He worked on it page by page. An editor once sent me a lengthy critique of one of his books and asked if I would help convince Kurt to accept the changes. I looked at them but knew better than to try. Once he wrote it his way, there was nothing you could do. And knowing him, if he saw that kind of detailed critique he might throw the whole book away and say it was garbage.

In order to make a statement about the correlation between perfectionism and writing quality, Veronica Roth assumes an objective standard of writing quality. Roth says that perfectionism will always reduce the objective quality of art. Kurt Vonnegut was a perfectionist. Kurt Vonnegut is a better writer than Veronica Roth. QED, Roth is wrong.

Roth quotes an odious paragraph by Anne Lamott (emphasis Roth’s):

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Isn’t that just a bushel of sunshine? My opinion that writers would benefit from holding themselves to a higher standard when drafting is the voice of tyranny, or something. I am cramped and insane. I dislike shitty first drafts because I want immortality, but it’s a useless exercise because there will always be someone better than me and we’re all gonna die.

Lamott is right in my case: I am insane, technically speaking, and I expect to inherit the genes that caused my father’s early, brutal death and kick the bucket in my 50s. I am absolutely afraid of death. I don’t even think that “fear” as a psychological construct makes any sense without human mortality.

But whatever fucking way I get to a first draft is not a concrete predictor of how well I write.

If this blog were popular I’d be flooded with comments like Yeah well Roth didn’t mean it that way so back off! and She’s a perfectionist, so she’s on your side, or She’s a perfectionist so she knows what she’s talking about, and p.s. your writing sucks, and this is just sour grapes because you’re jealous of how amazing Veronica Roth is. No, because I know what she means.

What Roth means to say isn’t mean-spirited – it’s kind and sweet and encouraging. Her post means yes, you special snowflakes, go WRITE and write UGLY and LOUD and THAT’S OKAYIt appeals to the desire aspiring writers have to be accepted and praised and gives them license to have fun with their work. It’s not supposed to insult anybody, but it pissed me off. She may not have intended to say that all perfectionists suck at writing, but “all perfectionists suck at writing” is a necessary conclusion from the post she’s written. Words mean stuff, you know? They mean stuff apart from the stuff you want them to mean, which is why you need to hold your work to a high standard and make sure your shitty first drafts don’t turn into blog posts that say stupid things you don’t mean like “all perfectionists suck at writing”.

I’ve said a lot about perfectionism before. If you want to know what I think about it, here are some links:

  • Get Your Hopes Down – why I think more writers would benefit from higher standards in their first drafts
  • Wordcount – why I’m at times jealous of people who aren’t perfectionists
  • Concentration – how a polished first draft can make cuts difficult
Posted in: My Books