Sunday, April 26, 2009

Excellence or Perfection? Writers Need To Know...

"Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing." --Harriet Braiker

The first time I truly considered the difference between excellence and perfection, my world view tilted on its axis. The word 'perfection' implies an ability to be flawless, which is frankly not a human capability. Besides, aren't the quirky flaws what makes each person so endearing? I flashed on an image of the old classic horror movie, "The Stepford Wives". Flawless to a fault, those shiny-faced robots were. Which is exactly why women shuddered at the thought!

Yet excellence is something we all can strive for. Personally, I even love the way the word rolls off the tongue. Excellence.

"No one is perfect... that's why pencils have erasers." -Author Unknown

Ironically, one of the biggest flaws people have is this unrealistic yearning for perfection. For authors the urge can be suffocating. The perfect word, the perfect phrase, the perfect query letter that will open The Door so many hope to slip through.

What does it mean instead to aim for excellence?

"A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault." ~John Henry Newman

'Personal Best' some would say, while others would describe the shining burst of triumph felt when something *clicks* inside the soul. Both are absolutely correct. Both are also dependent on the ability to move beyond the expectations, both from the outside world and from yourself. Striving for perfection may indeed be the leading cause of the nasty affliction known as Writer's Block. The heart freezes in panic because suddenly each word must meet some unrealistic criteria, as if there's an omniscient critic whose rating system rules us all.

"Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best." ~Henry van Dyke

The funny thing is those writers who take our breath away probably didn't give a whit about perfection. They were all in competition with themselves. That's what 'personal best' is all about. Looking at the scene and not worrying about whether it's perfect or whether it meets some arbitrary standard, but simply pushing to surpass your own expectations. That's when an author laughs in delight, staring in wonder at what magic has emerged from her soul.

"Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without." ~Confucius, Analects

Imagine if e.e. cummings conformed to the standards expected. Or Picasso. When agents and editors say all they're looking for is a good story, many a writer wants to scream, "But what does that mean?"

One word: Excellence.

To shove past the need for perfection and the need for safety to find a taste of your soul—that is excellence.

"The imperfections of a man, his frailties, his faults, are just as important as his virtues. You can't separate them. They're wedded." ~Henry Miller

The relationship between an author and his story is symbiotic. What this means is simply that if you can't accept flaws in yourself, you'll have difficulty weaving imperfections into your characters. The realization that excellence shines forth regardless of our flaws is a lesson our characters then teach us. Each story is a journey. Unless you're willing to take risks, your characters will reflect your hesitancy.

"Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will." --Goethe

"I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center." ~Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Player Piano

This week let's cram that need for perfection into a box and store it away in our inner attic. Instead of concerning ourselves with avoiding mistakes or finding the Absolute Perfect Sentence, let's focus on the heart of our story. That's where the excellence lies, after all. If you're feeling stuck, pull up a blank document and compose a letter to your soul, expressing what it is exactly you're trying to say in your story. If you have an idea tickling your brain, don't worry about composition or pacing or character arc. Just write. The words pouring out are the seeds ready to burst into bloom. Trust me there will be plenty of time to prune later. If you stare at the garden worrying about your harvest before you even plant, all you'll do is become mired in your own fertilizer. *wink*

"You see, when weaving a blanket, an Indian woman leaves a flaw in the weaving of that blanket to let the soul out." ~Martha Graham

Beauty, you see, is in the flaws. The tiny imperfections that capture the imagination are what life is all about. Put away the unrealistic belief in a 'Stepford Book' and let your soul take flight. You, my friend, are on the path of excellence.

Here's to a week of inspired productivity.
Let's Go-go-GO! Write-write-WRITE!

Chiron O'Keefe
My Love Affair With Pop Culture at Pop Culture Divas!

A side note: Brenda Novak's Auction for Diabetes Research gives both readers and writers fabulous, unique opportunties and all for a good cause! There's a banner on top of the page--turn off your ad-blocker and revisit for all the details.


Captain Hook said...

Awesome post, Chiron!! I know that I struggle to let go of my perfectionism every day.

J Hali said...

Great post Chiron, I do like how excellence rolls off my tongue :-) and perfection is as hard to achieve as it sounds.

Chiron said...

Hi there Captain!

You and me both, my dear. *grin* Here's to excellence!


Chiron said...

Thanks, J!

Very well put!! Or I should say...

Excellent! *GRIN*


Liena Ferror said...

As a new writer I strove for perfection but know excellence is more wihtin my reach and realistic.

Excellent post, Chiron!


Sandy said...


I needed this because I endlessly go over my work nitpicking each word. I've been trying to prevent myself from doing it. lol


Stacey Joy Netzel said...

Chiron, this is the exact thing I need to read when I start a new book. :) And that'll be soon. Thanks!

Linda LaRoque said...

An excellent message, Chiron. I never thought about the difference between perfection and excellence but I like the way you've shown how one is desirable and the other is not.

Chiron said...

Thanks, Liena!

I'm with you on that!!


Chiron said...


I truly relate. It's so hard to say ENOUGH! I try to remember books are like a delicious dish. There needs to be just enough spice but at some point you need to stop and serve it!


Thanks so much for stopping by...


Chiron said...

Hi Stacey!

Ah yes, the new book, where it's even more important to let the creativity Flow...

I think this week's essay was inspired by my editing stage. A reminder that I needed to let the book go and trust...

Thanks so much for visiting!


Chiron said...

Hey there Linda!

It's funny but this is something a friend and I talked about a couple of decades ago. I can't remember what inspired it but we really loved the concept. Very inspiring and also very liberating...

Thanks for your comments!