Voltaire was right about so many things, but about this above all else. When you strive for perfection, you will always fall short, not just of perfection, but likely of goodness as well.
I’m thinking about this today as a result of going to see Watchmen last night. (On IMAX, which I recommend for its size and clarity. Even if the larger-than-life full frontal blue nudity is a bit more disturbing on IMAX, this is a beautiful film, worthy of the big big big screen.)
I’ve not read a lot of detailed reviews of the movie, perhaps an even dozen, but the thing that strikes me about those reviews now that I’ve seen the movie is that they were all written by disappointed people. Not people disappointed because the movie wasn’t good. People disappointed because the movie wasn’t perfect. Either wasn’t perfect in and of itself, or in more cases, wasn’t a perfect adaptation of the comic book.
As a fan of the book, I enjoyed the movie. I thought it was quite good. (In its final story arc, I actually thought it was a bit better than the book. I know: heresy! Hold off with burning me at the stake, okay?) It wasn’t perfect, and that’s a blessing. The pressure for perfection was what kept the film from being made for years. People described it as “unfilmable,” but only because they were laboring under the notion that the only way to do the book justice would be to create a “perfect adaptation” of it.
In short, the Ghost of Perfect almost killed a perfectly good movie.
I think it frequently happens to writers, too. We become obsessed with making a particular story or scene or chapter perfect. Sometimes, it’s a worthy intent: we can see that the scene isn’t right and we work to improve it. At other times, we use the pursuit of perfection as a way to procrastinate. Just one more round of revisions. Just one more draft. Then we’ll send the story out. Then we’ll query the book. Just a few more tweaks and it will be done. Maybe next month. Maybe next year.
It’s an understandable fear. No one likes to be rejected. Or worse, mocked. Or worse, burned in literary effigy on the internet. Consider the glee with which otherwise nice, supportive people are willing to tear Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown limb from literary limb on writing forums. Consider that Alan Moore’s attitude toward the Watchmen film is one of pre-emptive disapproval. Not perfect = not good enough to give it a chance. He rightly observes that some of the elements of Watchmen are only suited to comic books, but shouldn’t that let the film off the hook for those elements? Shouldn’t it get to stand on its own for what it is: a movie?
A pretty good movie.
Similarly, if you find yourself bound up in thinking, “I’m never going to be as talented as [fill in the blank with your literary god],” you will always fall short. No matter what you write, it will never be perfect. You can never replicate the genius of another writer. Your writing must stand on its own for what it is, whatever it is.