Imperfection sounds bad. Yet I know all about the dangers of perfectionism. But somehow, when it comes to my writing, I never quite believe them.
It feels too easy, like part of that “everyone gets a prize” approach which I deeply mistrust. The sort of thing that makes teachers say, “Ermintrude is too easily satisfied.”
Not rigorous enough.
And then I came across a perfect justification for imperfection and it wasn’t by a counsellor or psychotherapist, but by Robert Watson-Watt, who supplied the RAF with radar in time to give them the crucial edge in the Battle of Britain.
His cult of the imperfect was: “Give them the third-best to go on with; the second-best comes too late, [and] the best never comes.”
Positive Imperfection for Writers
The law of diminishing returns seems to set in around the third draft. By the time you get to Draft 40 (and yes, I’ve been there) you’re spending three days to change a couple of paragraphs.
But imperfection actually adds something positive, does something more than just improve the time:effort:outcome ratio.
Tangents, uncompleted ideas, even mistakes are part of the world. As in the world, so in the compelling narrative.
The Imperfect Mr Levin
A passionate opera lover, Levin wrote a collection of essays about various festivals. Even if you hate the stuff, I invite you to read an extract from one such, now permanently lodged on the website of his alma mater, the London School of Economics. It is only part of the essay on Wexford which is, in its entirety, yes, too long, maybe a bit shapeless, but well worth seeking out. It’s so full of life that you feel you have been for a walk with a man whose company is pure champagne. Enjoy!
The Imperfect Novelist
All the good ones. Tolstoy (whom I like), Thomas Hardy (whom I don’t), Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, even my dear P G Wodehouse all have their longueurs when they start to ride their hobby horses. (Beware PGW on golf.) George Eliot, truly catty about blonde, pretty Rosamund Vincy: “she never thought of money except as something necessary which other people would always provide.” Georgette Heyer spraying exclamation marks around like pepper on pizza and not allowing Adam to fall properly in love with plump, practical Jenny!
So I’m going to end with a quotation that sort of sums up my own feelings about the divine qualities of Imperfection.
It is from The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson, page 192-3.
Anna, a Russian Countess in exile, has been housemaid in a grand house where the heir is about to marry and his new bride is going to banish Great Uncle Sebastien to an isolated wing under the care of jailer-nurses.
“Ah yes!” Her face was suddenly transfigured. “But I cannot play with you. It is impossible!”
“Not Selina Strickland, I hope. Because– ”
“No.” She sighed. “I shall be gone so soon that it doesn’t matter, I think. But you are a professional.“
In silence, Uncle Sebastien held out his hands, bent and swollen with rheumatism and age.
“Yes, you are right,” said Anna quietly. “God understands these things. Come.”
And so they played some of the world’s loveliest piano music – the exiled, homesick girl, the humilated, tired old man. Not properly. Better than that.