As I write this, I’m in the process of revising a novel I thought was finished. Recent events in my personal life caused me to take a new look at the psychological makeup of one of the main characters. I realized that her attitudes and behavior at a critical point in the story no longer worked for me. Instead, I saw them as rigid, blameful, and, for the purposes of the story, a real plot-killer.

This realization didn’t discourage me. I’d known something wasn’t gelling in the story, and I was delighted by this discovery. I’ve learned that unless I’m starting an entirely new project, creation doesn’t occur without some destruction. I was eager to tear the story apart and reconstruct it.

I was somewhat less eager once I began. Destruction can be really messy, whether you’re revising a manuscript, changing your immediate physical environment, or altering your life. It creates piles of debris. Things may look much worse before they begin to look better.

This has been happening to my story. Having decided that I needed to make certain changes, I discovered that these called for additional changes elsewhere in the manuscript. The process seemed to be spiraling out of control. My file for the book began to fill with notes like “HAVE TO CHANGE THIS” and “????” The novel that had once resembled a well-paved highway was turning into a cratered country road that wound and twisted through a wilderness.

It wasn’t perfect, and this pained me. It was like being pained by the sight of boards, nails, and drop cloths in the once immaculate room you decide to renovate. It’s like deciding you need to make some changes in a primary relationship, and the other person keeps on demanding, “Well, what DO you want?”, and you don’t know, because it’s a process of reconstruction, and you’re still tripping over the debris of what was.

There’s only one way to make this chaos endurable, and that’s to live with imperfection. And that isn’t always easy.

Here’s how I’m learning to do it.

1. I remind myself that just because the manuscript is imperfect, it doesn’t mean that I share its flaws.

2. I tell myself that not getting it perfect in the first run doesn’t mean I’m lazy or indifferent.

3. I say to myself that it’s so exciting to watch the story transform, that this is a thrilling, organic process.

4. Apropos of point 3, I repeat that over-said but never outworn saying that the journey matters more than the destination.

5. I realize that the pursuit of perfection constricts (if it doesn’t totally block) the flow of creativity.

6. I decide to choose excellence, a flexible word that allows much room for growth, instead.

Then I write, staying open to opportunity and inspiration, seeing the debris as part of the work in progress, each day finding creative solutions, moving towards excellence and leaving perfection far behind.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Insist on Perfection”

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