Chasing Perfection

Anthony Doerr recently won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See. And his book is not only noteworthy, it’s popular. It seems as if everyone I know has read or is reading that story, including one of my relatives, who is one of the sharpest and most critical readers I’ve ever known.

Before it won the prize, she and I decided to read the book together and discuss it.  My relative came to the table with detailed notes. To my surprise, she was not a fan of the book, pointing out numerous “flaws” in its structure, a few failings with the metaphors, some overwritten sentences. Interestingly, I had noted several of the things she pointed out, but unlike her, I liked the book. In all fairness, she had also written down her favorite sentences and positive comments too.

Doerr himself has admitted to great challenges in writing his novel, which took him a full decade to complete. Even he would tell you his book is not perfect, and that is precisely my point. No piece of art will ever be perfect.

At some point in every artist’s journey, we question whether we are up to the task of creation. Inevitably, we turn to the masters and compare ourselves with them, and almost always, we come up short. But if not even a book worthy of the Pulitzer is without flaws, that takes some of the pressure off, right?

The point is to produce the best art of which we are capable and to put it out in the world. There will be those who declare it “perfect,” even though it’s not, and those who point out flaws that no one else sees. For the rest of our lives, we will look at our own works and notice things we wish we had done differently. That’s human nature. We are programmed to never be satisfied.

So here’s my take on the quest for perfection . . . if striving for perfection guides you toward your best work, follow that track for a while. Then jump the track before it leads you round and round in circles.


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