On Perfection

In ceramics, you have to aim for a perfect piece from the beginning, or you will not get one that is good enough. Good enough means that it holds together. If you only aim for good enough at the beginning, you will lower standards too far and the piece will fly apart before the end. So you have to get all your things out, take a deep breath, plan what you are doing, and start in a very correct and precise way. You should not say, this is good enough for now, I will go back and correct errors later, because you cannot. Clay has a memory, and what you trace from the beginning is what you have.

I have always preferred to write in that way as well, and it is one of the reasons I do not like the advice of Robert Boice and similar people. “Good enough” is too vague and wan a term. To plan to be only “good enough” is to commit to mediocrity. It is to renounce yourself and your project before you have even started. It is self-defeating.

To plan to be “good enough” invites procrastination because it takes the excitement and enjoyment out of work, and turns it into a chore. As I say, it may only be “good enough” in the end … at some point you have to stop fiddling, and the piece has already taken as much work as it can stand … but you must start with perfection as your goal and once that has become unattainable, you must still seek to have your piece be as good as possible. Every piece could be your last and it is worth treating all pieces like that – with love, not as duties; like something you care about, not like something that you are just milking and that is milking you.


(I know everything about being only “good enough” because I was so often told it was the most I could hope for, and that even it would not always be attainable. “Good enough” is a really depressing goal, because you have to repress your talents very severely in order to attain it, and that degree of self-torture is disabling and distracting.)


Only having read through Boice’s book once, I am not sure this perception can be substantiated, but I have the feeling his advice is condescending and manipulative. He advises contradictory strategies: spend a lot of time on free writing, rushing to belch forth words any which way. But also outline. But also do not spend too much time on the actual writing. Rush to the finish.

Boice thinks people should start writing before they feel “ready” but he recommends a lot of what I would call procrastination techniques (free writing, obsessive outlining). I don’t like to start before I feel ready, but I get ready by thinking about ideas, words, and phrasing while I walk around. When my first line comes to me, I start. I like to start without having tied myself to a rigid outline (although I may make an outline halfway through if I need it), and I absolutely detest free writing – it is a big time sink and furthermore it muddies your groove. I say that warmup writing should not be part of your piece, it should be something else.


If I were on Twitter, I would tweet that in order to procrastinate grading I did my InaDWriMo stint for the day. Few words were produced, but great discoveries made. I had an idea and Googled it to see if it were original, and discovered it was not at all – it was well developed in a 1994 book I have right on my shelf. This is now causing me to reread the book and it is a good thing that I am.

The reason it is a good thing is that I looked it up seeking a citation for my InaDWriMo piece. I have a slight concern that work on this piece may be a form of procrastination on a more important piece. That is why I need to finish it soon, realizing that it was not planned as a top flight piece but as a bagatelle, and that my other piece is planned as a top flight one. But the book I rediscovered for the InaDWRiMo piece is important to my main piece, and that is why I am rereading it. The world works in mysterious ways.


Robert Boice would say I am procrastinating, but I say I am following a research thread. He would say that was an excuse, but I think I know more than he does. I really wonder why do so many people want us to write without reading first, anyway … I have been pushed in this direction since early graduate school. I don’t like to dawdle, but I don’t like to rush, either, as haste makes waste, and my reaction to rushing is to stop.


I ran across this quotation from George Orwell:

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns … instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

As we know, I was always taught that to be a successful academic writer one MUST BE INSINCERE. One’s actual research findings would be too scandalous, one’s own ideas invalid, one one’s intellect lacking. Success, meaning economic survival and therefore one’s very life, depended upon being a good mimic and hiding one’s thoughts from view. This is not the sort of thing Boice addresses, and it is why I do not like Boice. He only addresses easy, technical problems. It is a way to finish a book and improve your vita, so Boice is taking care of himself as he recommends that we do. But that is not the same as seriously addressing a problem.

As I keep on saying, I never had trouble with discipline or method. What always disheartened me was that imperative to insincerity. I know this is also what blocks my students. BUT LOOK WHAT ORWELL KNEW.


5 thoughts on “On Perfection

  1. Although now I have started to read the Boice book more seriously and it is a little better than I claim in this post. I think part of my adverse reaction to it is having had other people lecture at me from it –

    as if I did not know you have to write every day, preferably in fairly short sessions, to sustain a long term project

    as if my other issues about academia, manifested in refusals to write in various periods, were just writing or discipline problems

  2. I think you’re right about the writing being like clay that you have to build correctly from the beginning. It needs to be sincere. Sincerity is hard.

  3. Some people have a problem with perfectionism in their writing, and he is addressing them, not you.
    Your analogy of the clay shows that you work from the raw material and on up to the finshed form. This is a real materialist approach to writing. However, those among us who are idealists want to start from the perfection, as if they were pulling Athena from their heads. They want to write as if inspired by the realm of spirit as such, so that their humanity is itself transcended in their writing.

    This leaves them with a problem — namely that they have to learn to write, and mold and transform their product, or they will be disappointed with the result. So Boice is giving them advice concerning how to deal with their contradictory premises and still manage to produce something written.

    Orwell, however, was a materialist through and through.

  4. Well now I have actually finished the book and realized that he insists perfectionism is *not* the only problem. Still, he does address *writing problems* specifically and in isolation, so I reconfirm my original assessment, that this book was for people who don’t like writing or who need practical tips on how to form and maintain a writing program.

    “However, those among us who are idealists want to start from the perfection, as if they were pulling Athena from their heads. They want to write as if inspired by the realm of spirit as such, so that their humanity is itself transcended in their writing.”

    That’s very interesting. I think many of my students are like this. I did not have many professors like this but I think a lot of the people who have gone on at me about how I *should* be writing (they always want 7 pages a day, not 1, and so on) do think that way. (Their 7 pages is 7 pages of crap from which one can then salvage 1 the next day … I produce 1 in the first place, so that the next day I am on page 2 whereas they are still back in 1. And yet because they started with 7 they think they are better and can somehow teach.)

  5. For me, models are important. And reading in German. I believe there is nothing new under the sun and strive for clarity rather than ecstasy.
    As to perfection. I believed in striving for perfection until I had children. The storms and struggles of the young do not allow mothers to hold on to notions of perfection, unless they are crazy.
    As well, I have some very careless ceramic pieces I made once which amuse me to look at, they are so amateurish. And my little kids made so many objects I’ve kept that I cherish as expressions of their young selves.
    But I will read the Boice. You have aroused my curiosity.
    Once a writing teacher said to me, “You have to love your work.” I thought then that he was an old fool, but now I think he was right.

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