Hello, good morning, and welcome to another Thursday. As is often the case when I start writing a blog entry, I really don’t know what I’m going to “talk” about. Fortunately (or not, depending on your point of view) that rarely stops me from putting a great many words down in short order.
This seems a common tendency in both writing and speaking. In fact, it seems to be more common in speaking than in writing, though I myself (you know: me…the guy writing this blog) tend to be a bit reticent in social settings, unless ethanol-containing beverages have been consumed. I was raised on the aphorism, attributed to Mark Twain, that it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. I’m sure that there are many who would wish that I had followed this idea more assiduously.
The fear of being thought a fool does bring one to an interesting converse, or corollary, to the above-noted garrulousness of those who have nothing of substance to convey, and that is the human tendency to find it difficult to speak (or to write) when it’s important. This isn’t universal, perhaps, but who among you cannot recall a time when you really liked some member of the appropriate gender and wanted to express that feeling (and perhaps ask said person out on a date) but found it impossible to say anything that was discernible from the babbling of an epileptic gibbon? Many a comedy, both real and fictional, has highlighted such situations; alas, so have quite a few tragedies.
I suspect that this is born of the inherent perfectionism we all tend to embrace when trying to communicate something that’s important to us. When what we say really matters, when we feel that it is crucial, we want our communication to be absolutely perfect…or we feel that it ought to be, anyway. Those of you who have ever written term papers in school or university can surely appreciate that horrible sense that if it’s not perfect, or nearly so, then it’s simply horrible.
But of course, such perfection seems impossible to define, let alone to achieve, even by the greatest among us. Upon occasion—Blasphemy Alert!—I’ve even read Shakespeare and had the sneaking thought that he could have written some particular line better than he did. I might even, when feeling particularly cheeky, imagine that I’ve seen such a better way. I hastily defend my humility in such instances by declaring that the line’s imperfection must have been the fault of the transcribing player who recorded it, not Shakespeare himself, hallowed be his name.
Actually, I don’t do that. Nor do I imagine that everyone would agree with my suggested improvement, nor on which lines could be improved. It’s simply the case that even Shakespeare was not perfect—whatever that means.
There are even people—yes, people of intelligence and good taste—who don’t much like Shakespeare. Really. It’s true. I’ve met them. They’re not monsters, nor are they insane (if you can believe it). They’re ordinary, decent people.
My point is, perfection in communication isn’t even definable let alone achievable, so it’s curious that we get so hung up on stumbling over our words when we try to convey something important. When we’re less wound up about it, we seem instinctively to recognize that conversation is like a sketch. It doesn’t matter if a particular stroke of the pencil isn’t exactly right, because you’re just going to modify it with the next stroke anyway, and gradually you’re going to add and adjust until you get your point across…or until you fail to do so. Even the overuse of metaphor and simile can still achieve some kind of communication.
That’s why I don’t subscribe to the nonsensical goal of sitting down and writing the “best sentence,” the “truest sentence”* you can write. When I’m writing (be it a blog post, or a short story, or a novel, or a poem, or a song), I take the approach just to fucking write something. Get something out onto the page, or the LCD screen. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It won’t be perfect. In fact, no matter how much you edit it or improve it, it won’t ever be perfect…but it can get better. You’re not stuck with what you first get out, you can fix and tweak and adjust it as often as you want…sometimes until you’re so bored with it that you don’t give a shit whether it’s good, let alone whether it’s perfect or not.
I sometimes think that this is the ultimate state of most shared works of art. The artists finally get sick of working on them and just throw up their hands and say, “Okay, fine, that’s good enough. Or not. I don’t care, I’m done with it. Get it out of my sight!”
Perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but I think that’s a good attitude to cultivate, at least if you’re a member of the legion of creative people with performance anxiety born of an innate (or learned) perfectionism. Nothing is going to be expressed perfectly.
When you go up and talk to the girl (for instance) that you like, you may stumble over your words—indeed, you may literally stumble—your voice may crack, and you may say something utterly inane. You probably will. But that’s okay. That’s just the first stroke of the pencil; the full work of art is just getting started. The target of your affection might even find your incoherence charming**. She might even like the way you mix and overuse metaphors! But if you don’t say anything, then nothing at all will happen (except personal regret and self-loathing, which are overrated).
I don’t know where to go next with this, and I suspect that I’ve said all that’s useful to say about it for now…except, perhaps, to add my own correction to the irritating, related notion that “practice makes perfect.” It doesn’t. But it does make you better. Indeed, the very fact that improvement is open-ended, with no practical limits, is more exciting than the notion of becoming perfect at something. If perfection were attainable, there would be nowhere to go but down from there. But as it stands, we can always get better and better, without limit, for as long as we’re able to do anything at all, if we keep trying. But we do have to try; we have to say or do something. And we’re not going to do that if we wait until we have something “perfect” to say.
*I don’t even remember who said or wrote words to that effect. That’s how anti-important I found the idea.
**And she might not. This is the real world, after all, and sometimes the person you like just doesn’t reciprocate. Likewise, not everyone will like every story, or article, or painting, or song, or sculpture, or whatever. Universal popularity is at least as great a phantasm as perfection.