Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

Where do you stand on perfectionism? (08/15/07)



Featured writer: Jane Merryman



Contributors this month:

Arlene L. Mandell
Betty Winslow
Christine Falcone
David S Johnson
Don Edgers
Geri Digiorno
Jane Merryman
Lisa Romeo
Lynne Shapiro
Marilyn Petty
Pat Tyler
Susan Bono
Thursday R. Bram


Jane Merryman



I have been accused of perfectionism. And I do mean accused. It was as if I had flung a personal insult into the face of the finger-pointer, upset the balance of the universe, committed unpardonable one-upmanship.

The thing of it is—I don't believe in perfection. I believe few things are perfect. Well, maybe a piece of 70 percent Sao Tomé chocolate. Most things, though, can only be exceedingly wonderful, memorable enough to set the bar, or unbelievably scrumptious.

I got my aesthetics training in handweaving in the '70s and '80s, when the Japanese ideal was strongly in force. Japanese craftsmen purposefully introduce imperfections into their ceramics, basketry, handwovens, and other products. This is considered a design element and it is expected. In the incomparable antique carpets of the Caucasus, the less than perfectly matched dye lots impart a liveliness to the finished textile that no other element can.

Be all you can be is my motto. And, be present in the moment. I do the best I am able to do at this particular moment. Sometimes this is not as good as at other times, sometimes it is more brilliant. I wouldn't call the result perfect, just satisfying, and it won't stay that way for long. There is always one step farther. There is always a new perspective, a new technique, new materials, new uses. I stick by the idea of imperfection as a design element. Please, no more accusations.


Jane Merryman, Petaluma, CA
Jane's Website








Nearly Perfect

  by Arlene L. Mandell

I am an exacting, discriminating, selective and picky writer who will never be 100% satisfied with the quality of my output, the efficiency of my adjectives, or the exactitude of my endings. I strive for the impeccable, but usually end up with a cleverly written story or a pleasing poem. I love writing and love being published, but then I see - a misplaced modifier or an errant comma. Or I read a much better, freer poem.

In July I won three second-place ribbons for my poems at the Sonoma County Fair. A visiting cousin called with the news. Second place? I asked. I thought you'd be happy, she said. Someone else with the initials SS won the first place ribbons and best in show.

Second place? This desire to be unrivaled, matchless, THE BEST, is only briefly squelched by meditation. I try and I try and I try. I think if I won the Pulitzer Prize, I'd wonder why it wasn't a Nobel.

Arlene L. Mandell has 43 more synonyms for perfectionism. It’s best not to ask her for them.


Betty Winslow



Perfectionism - the hitting of the target one aims at each and every time in exactly the correct way - is an impossible goal. One can strive for it, but will never reach it in this life. Humans aren't and never will be perfect. And those who make that their goal will end up beating themselves up each time they fail (and they will - we all do.) Only God is perfect. The rest of us need to realize that perfection is a nice idea, but an impossible lifestyle.


Betty Winslow, dotting her "I’s" and crossing her "T’s" in Bowling Green, Ohio

What’s Your Stand on Perfection?

  by Christine Falcone

At the Mendocino Coast Writers' Conference, one point that was made again and again was that everyone means something different by "writer" and everyone means something different by "published." Now I would go so far as to say that everyone means something different by "perfect." How long can a writer nuance a particular piece of writing? At some point, we have to declare ourselves finished, right? I think the answer lies somewhere between completion and perfection. Sure, we have to make sure the manuscript is perfect - no typos, no grammatical errors. But beyond that, isn't a thing perfect if the words disappear, or better yet, if they lift off the page and sing while we're reading? Isn't a thing perfect if you've given it your all, refined and revised until you're spent? If you've bled on the page, poured every drop of yourself into making a thing as beautiful, as entertaining, and as meaningful as possible, we should be able to say not only that it's done, but that it is, indeed, perfect. As perfect as it's going to be, not some unattainable point of perfection, but a real, honest to goodness certainty that it is the perfect book or essay or poem for you, the writer. I always tell my husband he's the perfect man and it's true: he is the perfect man - for me. And the same is true for perfection in writing. It's so subjective and the answer lies somewhere in the reader's heart.


Christine Falcone lives and writes in Novato where she lives with her husband and 4-year-old daughter. She's currently seeking a literary agent for her recently completed novel, This Is What I Know, which has been named a finalist in 2007's Faulkner-Wisdom competition.

David S Johnson



Me (normal font) and my resurrected Inner-Critic (italics) discuss Perfection:

Okay, let's get started.

What are we writing about?

Perfection.

Shouldn't you start off with something more your speed like "homosexual necrophilia in mallard ducks?"

Shut up. Besides, that's already been done. Okay, here we go. Webster's Dictionary defines perfection as…

Crap. Just like this essay. Definitions are overdone.

Fine. "Contemplating the moral authority over the intrinsic beauty of life;" a man once stood upon the bank of a river…

And threw himself in because he didn't know what the hell you were talking about. And neither do I. Get to the point quicker.

Okay. Perfection is more than copyediting and clicking the speelcheck…

Which you apparently never do.

You see, nobody's perfect…

Especially you, cliché-boy.

For one to be perfect, one must conceptualize the examination of the quintessential paragon of perfection that is epitomized in the…

Are you studying for your SATs with all those big words or trying to be just oblique enough with your circuitous and pseudo-intellectual diatribe to get into the New Yorker?

Well what do you suggest I do?

Write a good essay.

But you keep criticizing my decisions.

Yes, because what you're writing is crap. Recently, your best work was when you fell asleep on your keyboard and typed 13 pages of k's.

So I may be in the creative doldrums, but I've got to put something down. The deadline's coming up.

Were it not for deadlines, I'd never let you send anything out. Look, let's list some things that seem perfect to you.

Making my baby nephew laugh. A crawfish boil in late spring with friends and cooler of Abita beer. Catching a twenty-pound redfish with my little brother. The smile from a woman when you open her car door.

Perfect! All of those things have the same qualities. They're simple, elegant and most importantly, they're sincere. Now those things are perfect for you, but they're not perfect for everyone. This is true for journals and magazines. You may write a perfect essay for one of those markets, but it's not perfect for all of them.

I guess I can see the analogy, but surely every woman likes to have a door held open for her.

Not every woman. It sometimes scares Yankee women. Remember the first time you opened the car door for your friend from Boston and she hugged her purse to her chest like she was trying to squeeze juice out of it? Despite your sincere gesture as a gentleman, she thought you were going to try to take advantage of her.

She did run pretty fast to her door when I dropped her off. I thought she just had to pee. So, sometimes despite my best efforts, some people, or journals, don't get it?

Sure. Of course, we may be telling ourselves that just so we'll feel better. The point is, write honestly, don't be too fancy, and keep it simple. Eventually it will be perfect for someone.

So what do you think? Am I perfect for someone?

Maybe, but for now you've got me.

Perfect.


David S Johnson
Department of Biological Sciences
LSU
Baton Rouge, LA
David's Website


Where do you stand on perfection?

  by Don Edgers

In artistic endeavors, perfection has to be the subjective judgment of the creator and the genre's adherents.

The expression, "Some cats (have) got it and some cats don't (have it)" applies to most artists. The majority of the "cats that don't" drop by the wayside. But those with gumption redouble their efforts to make it into "cats who have got it" camp.

As a teacher of public speaking (another "cat" camp), students' speeches were rated by me and listeners from the audience - on a scale of 1 (no merit) to 10 (perfect). Numerical scores would be applied to the content (what was said) and the delivery (how it was said). For example, a score of 9/6 would translate to excellent content and average delivery. This rating can also be applied to writing - what you write and how you write it.

As writers we strive towards perfection, knowing this goal is nearly unachievable - somewhat like buying a lottery ticket might make one very wealthy.

Writers have somewhat better odds at achieving perfection in writing a perfect pitch or enquiry to an agent or publisher, but only through a positive attitude and tenacity. How many rejections does it take to cause us give up? Look at Emily Dickinson. Only 10 of her poems were published during her lifetime—out of more than 1,700 poems. If she had made an effort to use punctuation, capitals and listen to her editor, she may have experienced much more success in her 56 years. Unfortunately for her, she didn't strive toward perfection, and became a closet poet - letting her adherents "fix up" most of her output after her death. She would probably rated 9- (content - what she wrote) and a 3+ (delivery - how she wrote it).

No doubt all of us have received many rejections from editors, agents and publishers to our queries or pitches. But when the moon is just right and our perfect (nonmusical) pitch sends out just the right vibrations, we receive, "Thank you for your recent book proposal. Our acquisition and publications committee have reviewed your materials, and we are delighted that we can anticipate adding your book to ******'s list of titles ----- I have enclosed two copies of our contract for you to read and sign." 10/10 - SCOOOOOOOORE!

Don Edgers had his second historical memoir, “An Island in Time II: Coming of age in the 1950’s” published by Author House this summer. Arcadia Publishing has accepted his book proposal for “Fox Island” for their Images of America series. He writes in Port Orchard, WA and has a deadline of November 21, 2007. His Web-site is www.anislandintime.com



What do you mean, perfection?

  by Geri Digiorno

Perfection? Perfection of my poetry? My life? My family and friendships? My taking care of myself? My house? Even my car? This is all on my mind. But lets just talk about writing, OK? I don't know if I want perfection in my writing. I want surprises and mysteries, I want to go to another place in my writing, to discover something new, go to another place in my head I haven't been to, leave my comfort zone. I can always come back.

Geri DiGiorno is Sonoma County's Poet Laureate and the force of nature that is the Petaluma Poetry Walk, now in its 12th year:www.petaluma.poetrywalk.org
Find out more about Geri at Red Hen Press.



Jane Merryman



I have been accused of perfectionism. And I do mean accused. It was as if I had flung a personal insult into the face of the finger-pointer, upset the balance of the universe, committed unpardonable one-upmanship.

The thing of it is—I don't believe in perfection. I believe few things are perfect. Well, maybe a piece of 70 percent Sao Tomé chocolate. Most things, though, can only be exceedingly wonderful, memorable enough to set the bar, or unbelievably scrumptious.

I got my aesthetics training in handweaving in the '70s and '80s, when the Japanese ideal was strongly in force. Japanese craftsmen purposefully introduce imperfections into their ceramics, basketry, handwovens, and other products. This is considered a design element and it is expected. In the incomparable antique carpets of the Caucasus, the less than perfectly matched dye lots impart a liveliness to the finished textile that no other element can.

Be all you can be is my motto. And, be present in the moment. I do the best I am able to do at this particular moment. Sometimes this is not as good as at other times, sometimes it is more brilliant. I wouldn't call the result perfect, just satisfying, and it won't stay that way for long. There is always one step farther. There is always a new perspective, a new technique, new materials, new uses. I stick by the idea of imperfection as a design element. Please, no more accusations.


Jane Merryman, Petaluma, CA
Jane's Website


Lisa Romeo



My stand on perfection:

Its a nobel cause witch many writers struggle with. Not me, of course.


Lisa Romeo

Coyote At My Door

  by Lynne Shapiro

Perfectionism works its wonders in a myriad of ways. Despite the fact that what one finds perfect is constantly changing and that perfection itself does not likely exist, perfection is a lure we writers follow - what choice do we have?

Perfectionism makes me tool and retool words so they transmit my nuanced thoughts. That done, am I satisfied? Will what I deem perfect at 10 PM seem so upon awakening? Perfectionism leads us to write better, and yet we know, all the while, that we must content ourselves with a less-perfect product than our Platonic imagination keeps dangling before us and propelling us towards.

One way out of the hell of perfectionism is procrastination. "I'm sorry, but this would've been better if I‘d had more time, started earlier." Without a deadline, the artist Willem de Kooning invented a way out of his perfectionist work ethic. He painted doors into his paintings so he could exit. Without a limit, he knew he'd work his paintings to death; the spontaneity would be gone and with it the quality that made his art so…well, perfect.

Is perfectionism hereditary? My mother told me three things about my real father: 1) He was an alcoholic; 2) I inherited his large lips and unruly brows;and 3) He was a perfectionist; he worked at building a ship in a bottle so obsessively, he broke it. Beware - not the perfect face but rather perfectionism itself. Did my father drink, I wonder, because he couldn't bear the burden of his perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a burden, a burden I'll take on when endlessly fiddling with a poem or essay, but which I avoid in other realms, like keeping house. The more I clean, the more I see imperfection and dirt. When I'm through and can sit back and enjoy, I'm transformed into a miserable "house Nazi". Perfectionism meets obsession - "the house must remain this neat and clean. Always!" Living is too messy and must stop; perfectionism leads to stagnation…

…And breeds disappointment. Roquentin, in Jean Paul Sartre's Nausea, dreams of a perfect moment. When it comes, the perfect kiss is undermined by pine needles sticking him in the rear end. He is distracted and misses his perfect moment.

In his essay, "The Loss of the Creature," Walker Percy demonstrates how despite our plans and because of our planning we can never achieve perfection. Perfectionism never leads to perfection. Magic happens because it is unplanned and because we do not expect it. All we can do is be open to chance.

For some American Indians, accident/chance comes in the form of all-too-human, imperfect Coyote. Despite his good intentions, Coyote wreaks havoc. First Woman writes the laws onto the stars for all to see. Coyote impatiently tosses them into the sky. That's why the world is the way it is; there are no laws; we make the laws, each of us in our own way. We writers crave perfection; but perfection is sterile, lifeless, brittle. Luckily, Coyote lurks nearby.


Lynne Shapiro is a writer and teacher who lives with her husband, teenage son, dog, bird and turtle in a perfectly chaotic home in Hoboken, New Jersey.


What is your stand on perfection?

  by Marilyn Petty

Six little Bo-Peeps dressed in spriggy, ruffled frocks with white pantaloons milled around backstage waiting to perform at a recital presented by Billie and Earl's Dance Studio. I was the smallest and thus the last in line to enter Stage Right. Except that Pamela, the leader, tippy-toed out in her ballet shoes Stage Left leaving me dashing hither and yon back stage until some mother nudged me out-—late-—to follow the troop. The audience laughed. I was 6 years old and that was the first and last time I believed in Perfection. I was right, Pamela was wrong. Practice had made me perfect and the audience laughed.

Had I had the aplomb to sweep a cute curtsey before joining my proper place in line, I might have engendered applause and thus gone on to scale the slippery slope of Perfection. But the view from such lofty heights is too rarified, crowded on the way up by too many wannabees elbowing their way to an illusion. Instead of trying to Stand on Perfection, I'm down below working on Doing My Best. Striving for my very own Best leaves plenty of room for stumbling, for picking myself up to go again and get better at doing my best.

Still, I wish I had done that cute little curtsey, given a cheerful wave, knocked that audience dead, and shown up Pamela for the bumbling idiot she was. Perfection....


Marilyn Petty lives in Santa Rosa and every day strives her best even in this Crone stage of her life.


Leave It

  by Pat Tyler

Here is my personal motto regarding perfection: LEAVE PERFECTION TO THE PERFECTIONISTS.

This motto evolved far too slowly during my past seventy-three years. But evolve it has. At last. And that counts.

Like any motto, this one only serves me well if #1) I can remember it and #2) I can put it to good use.

I'm a woodcrafter and sign maker and many years ago I created little signs to hang everywhere, as reminders of my personal beliefs, especially about perfectionism.

Some were calligraphed in black India ink on white parchment paper. Those were glued (with removable glue) onto the refrigerator door, bathroom mirror, underbelly of the toilet seat lid, right below the microwave door, and just above my computer screen.

The personal sentiment, engraved in three-inch letters on a polished pine board four inches high by five feet long, is hung over the dining room table whenever my in-laws come to dinner: LEAVE PERFECTION TO THE PERFECTIONISTS, it says. Loud and clear.

They don't get it.

My non-perfectionist philosophy has become a great boon to my writing as well. It lets me have fun - think out of the box - color outside the lines. Utilize wonderful clichés.

But no cliché can fully express my latent joy at stacking paragraphs, one upon the other, with no transitions, no segues, no thought at all of connecting any one paragraph to any other. This practice alone fills me with glee.

My sentences end in dangling participles. I use passive voice, giving active a rest. I use conjunctive adverbs that set the teeth of lawyers on edge. I use interjections every chance I get!! I drive editors crazy!!!

And I love possessive pronouns - yeah, it's all about me, baby. All about my and mine, each little pronoun turning me into a kid again.

I always use accept, never except. I don't believe in exclusion.

I use adopt, not adapt. To me they are synonymous. I am adopted. And therefore adapted. Let me tell you!

I use allusion, never illusion. I've suffered too many illusions for one so young.

And when it comes to amoral or immoral I think there's a little of both in all of us (or is that in each of us?) No problem with reader identity, however.

And bad or badly? You decide which one's good (or better - or best.)
To me, censor and censure go hand in hand. And when it comes to could care less or couldn't care less - who cares?

But even in my callous carelessness I refuse to use different from or different than. Nobody likes to be different. Period.

And when it comes to emigrate or immigrate, I won't even go there; considering what politics is (and does) today.

I've thrown out my glossary of usage! It's downright ho-hum boring. It tells me never to use kind of or sort of. Use somewhat, it proclaims. But it doesn't know me. It doesn't know my friends, either. I use kinda sorta all the time. Somewhat borders on the arrogant, if you ask me. And my friends know that when I use kinda sorta I might be waffling - but not for long. I'm on my way to an absolutely incontrovertible opinion.

And I've learned that one waits for if one is a man - and one waits on - if one is a woman. Everybody knows that. Oversimplified? Not at all. Just simple. Simple is good.

Playful is better. I use lots of playful ellipses and M-dashes (or is that em-dashes?) I do it just for fun! I use colons where semi-colons should be. I write things that make no sense at all - words without a's and e's, words without i's and o's, - even words without u's. I write sentences using only one-syllable words.

I write shitty first drafts.
I write crappy revisions.
And OK, I don't write well!
I don't even right good.
But I WRITE!
And HAVE FUN!

Wanna know why?

Cuz - I LEAVE PERFECTION TO THE PERFECTIONISTS!!!

Pat Tyler, Cotati, CA
www.writetoday.net


Making it Real

  by Susan Bono

For me, the act of writing starts with an idea that makes me feel so complete it's as if I've died and gone to heaven. An inspired notion whisks me to the railing of some cosmic vista point, there to gaze at landscapes of dark majesty or sunlit splendor, my sensibilities awash in excitement and wonder. Celestial music can be playing in the background, but I usually don't take it that far.

All is perfection while I ponder, but by the time I get to a pen or computer, the dream has already begun to fade. The vision that was so vivid I could taste the Technicolor is being jostled into dust by the physical act of getting the words out of my body.

I get discouraged. The harder I strive to communicate that original sense of perfection, the more confused and frustrated I become. I suspect every word I write of taking me farther from my intention. I get lost in the herky-jerky of scratchouts and long pauses. To avoid this pain, I have learned to procrastinate, or simply talk the story to death instead of writing it. Unless I am compelled by hard and fast deadlines, I often abandon the project.

In the beginning there was, if you believe the stories, a Word so sacred, perfect and powerful that everything else was created from it. I used to think that word was a noun, like "Perfection," but perhaps, in the beginning there was a Verb. This universe does seem to be a place of action.

That first Word might have been "Choose"—to select from a number of possibilities. Maybe God began with an even better idea for the universe, but this was what we ended up with. It took only a few days to make the world, but who knows how many earlier projects never left God's drawing board or how much procrastination led up to this one?

I think it's important for me to remember God didn't claim the world was perfect, just good. It's hard to imagine the Creator brooding over any flaws or downright dumb design choices that prompted reality as we know it. I see God being pretty pleased after that busy work week, delighted by the soundness of the original concept, proud of the way revision brought about improvements, and best of all, humbled by those happy accidents. Good seems to be the best we can hope for in any act of creation. If it were perfect, it wouldn't be real.

Susan Bono is making it real in Petaluma,CA.

What is your stance on perfection?

  by Thursday R. Bram

Perfection was once no more than an ending - the Latin perficio means only ‘to finish.' This is what one should strive for, bring an act or a moment or a life to its perfection, its ending.

There is no other shared standard than completion. Where one man may proclaim a Porsche his standard for a perfect life, another may be more than content with the company of his wife. Each will live his life, ambitious for those things he wants, but in the end both lives can be perfect as they come to a conclusion.

There is no way to make a life, or a story, perfectly flawless. One can polish and edit for years, but there is no way to perfect any project, unless completion is perfection enough.


Thursday Bram
Thursday's Website


Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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