Perfection Killed the Dinner Party

Part Six

How to Complete a Novel

Tonight friends are coming over to your house for dinner. You had every intention of getting the house cleaned and doing the grocery shopping yesterday, but you spent the whole day beautifying the yard. Never mind the fact that your guests will arrive after dark and no one will see your effort. You just couldn’t stop yourself; you moved from task to task, and each new task led to another unanticipated task until the day was consumed by work unrelated to the upcoming dinner party. Now it is the aching dawn of party day and you’re forcing your tired body to mop the floor. The radio is  tuned to the local indie station. Mellow  rhythms intended to sooth hangover regrets seep into the mop’s wet patterns. A bit of relaxation steals into your soul; you have all day to finish your chores, purchase food, and cook a meal to astound an epicure. Then your dogs come crashing in through their dog door, tracking dirt across the Nirvana clean of your floor. Relaxation? Gone. Anger, frustration, and fear that you won’t have everything done in time? Oh, yeah.

worst dinner party. ever.

I’ve just described myself, circa 2009. I have always had perfectionist leanings, but as I moved into my thirties, those leanings morphed into something closer to a disability. In my quest to achieve absolute completion of any given task, I failed to enjoy the activity of accomplishment or reap any benefits from my unending quest.  I have a real thing for cleanliness and order, and life has a real thing for entropy! I was taking on the universe and losing on every front.

In the party prep scenario, the pressure stems from believing I can create the perfect experience for my guests. I want them to arrive to a house that has a manicured front lawn, even if they will have to intuit it rather than actually see. I want the inside of the house to be so clean that if they were to move the sofa or look under the cushions, they could find no fault with my housekeeping. I wanted to prepare not just a good meal, but one that would ‘astound an epicure’.  I was insane.

Friends don’t come to your house to find fault. The come to spend time, hopefully to laugh a bit, eat some good food, drink some wine, and  to enjoy the company of other people outside the proscribed lockstep of corporate structure. Real friends come to see you and would rather you have fun with them than spend the whole evening striving for some heavenly concerto of expertly timed food service.

Do I think you should leave the stuffed animal guts and the chewed sticks the dogs brought in scattered on the floor? Or dirty dishes piled in the sink? No. But I also think it’s okay to “settle” for a tidy yard rather than a perfectly landscaped one, a clean house rather than a figgen monument to OCD, a wholesome and tasty meal rather than an elaborate feast that does more to showcase your talent than give people something they really want to eat. The environment and the food are accompaniments to the fellowship. Don’t allow the cleaning and cooking to suck the enjoyment out of having house guests or you will stop inviting people to dinner. Most of us want to avoid stress, but it’s important to identify the difference between negative stress and positive eustress.  The stress associated with preparing for an evening of conversation and friendship should be one of anticipation and excitement rather than a fear of failure.

As you might have guessed, the sixth suggestion I have on how to complete a novel is:

Step Back from Perfection

Perfection is the enemy of good enough.

The phrase is a slight misquote of Voltaire, and it is one I often hear software developers repeat. What they mean is that producing bug-free software is impossible, and that finding and fixing the last 20% of edge case bugs isn’t worth the cost that will be incurred by delaying the product ship. This maxim can be applied to writing. Do not aim for perfection in the first draft. In fact, don’t aim for perfection. Instead, work to make each revision better than the last in ways that you can express clearly to yourself or anyone who might ask. Unburdened by the impossible goal of perfection, you can enjoy the process of writing. Give yourself permission to make the ‘mistakes’ that will lead you to things greater and more creative than the narrow confines of perfection.

Check back soon for another post in my ‘How to Complete A Novel’ series!

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10 thoughts on “Perfection Killed the Dinner Party

  1. A perfect blog!!!
    I used to tell my quilting students the process of quilting should be fun…not rigid. It is so easy to fall into the trap of everything must be perfect….someone might notice that the quilt is not perfect. I have found over the years that the quilts that are full of mistakes are viewed by nonquilters as beautiful. The mistakes are simply not noticed. With everything you do, you should always take time to enjoy the process….most will not see the flaws of what you are doing…those that do, and say something, you do not need as friends,or dinner guests. Looking forward to the next blog.

    • Sometimes it is the ‘mistakes’ that give a work life. The skill comes in knowing which mistakes are truly bad and which can be leveraged into becoming something great and unexpected. I think that skill only comes with practice, and practice is what gives you the courage to take the risks that result in mistakes… bit of a cyclic thing, isn’t it?

  2. PS– Sometmes I have to remind myself that the “dirt” and “mess” are signs of a full, happy life. The dirt on the floors are the reminder of a long day of playing outside, the crayon marks on the kitchen table are the little words “hello, I made Mommy a picture for her fridge” and that sticky mess on the counter? Yep, the boys helped bake a yummy treat. It is hard to let go, but life goes on, even with the cheerios and legos that are stuffed under the sofa cushions.

  3. I really enjoyed this blog, as well as all the previous ones. And, YES, it is all important to not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good!

  4. Wow, the first part of this post sounds like my wife. I would have her come read this, but I think she’d just get mad at me :)

    More importantly, I like how you have applied it to writing the first draft. The idea of perfection in a first draft (hell, even by the third or fourth draft) is laughable. But beyond that, one could pull their hair out trying to make it that way. I think perfection in general is one of my biggest criticisms of academia. Even though I got my degree in English/Creative Writing, I saw academia for the trap that it was, a cycle of endless writing, critiquing, rewriting, re-critiquing. I’ve found that I can always find something new to change every time I look at something I’ve written (and the funny part is, after a hundred revisions, I often don’t know if I’m actually just changing it back to the way it was before :)

    Fun post. Hope you had a good, relaxing weekend.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • Same here, I can always find something to change no matter how many revisions I’ve done. There is a point of diminishing returns, though. When the tinkering starts to feel like avoidance of writing something new, I know I’ve gone too far. I never considered I might be changing things back to how they were in a previous version! I bet that has happened, because some changes are more about mood or taste rather than ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I don’t use Word’s track changes feature except when I’m getting someone else’s opinion, so I’d have to go back through all sorts of files to figure out what changed when. It might be fun to trace a particular paragraph or scene and see how it’s changed. Hmmm.

      It was a good weekend, thanks!

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