There was a student in my Creative Writing class at Country Day who was a brilliant girl. Sadly, she would rather accept an F than a B. I knew she was a powerful writer because when we wrote in class and I collected the drafts, her work was very good. It was when she was to submit something that she had time to work on at home, something more polished than a first draft, she would not hand anything in. The school was committed to grading everything, so I couldn’t do the obvious thing and stop assigning letter grades to writers. I called her parents to discuss this problem, as she was heading for a failing grade. Apparently, this was a problem that she had had all her life. If she couldn’t do something perfectly, then she wouldn’t do it at all.
I managed somehow to adjust her grade so that she would still have a GPA that allowed her to go to Duke, her parents’ alma mater. However, I’ll bet that problem stayed with her ever after. I know, because like her, I have a bit of a perfectionist streak. I am dissatisfied with anything less than perfect in many parts of my life. I present colorful dinners to Ron every night arranged on antique platters, the table set just so with cloth napkins and table cloth. I am constantly rearranging my living room and the shop. And I freak if Ron leaves tools, etc on the front porch. It messes up the aesthetic.
When Abby was a little girl, I was on her case about something, and she turned to me and said, “You expect me to be perfect.”
I denied it vehemently. But then she asked, “Ok. In what part of my life can I be less than perfect?” She had me there. I had to admit she was right and that “because she was so capable and beautiful, I did expect her to be perfect in every way.” And I still do.
While I clearly do not demand perfection from myself in these weekly missives, I do not write for publication because I believe that anything I write will be second rate. I have published articles in several journals, but that doesn’t count. That kind of writing is not that interesting. What I fear is attempting the kind of fiction that might fall under the category of literature.
I read all the time, and my taste extends from “Stood the test of time” literature to trashy thrillers and mystery novels. Occasionally, I read something that is both. Recently I read The Con Man’s Daughter by Ed Dee, and loved it. It was a page-turner that kept me awake at night, but I didn’t want to skim just for plot. The writing itself was gritty and fresh. Dee retired from NYPD’s Organized Crime Unit, so the book is full of the kinds of details that create pictures in the reader’s mind and teach something about Russian thugs in Brooklyn. It feels true. But the thing that sets this book apart is the skill with which Dee writes. I wasn’t surprised to read at the end that he earned an MFA in writing.
Conversely, last night I started a book given to me by my friend Suzy. She warned me that it wasn’t great but it was a “fun read.” The contrast with Dee’s book was startling. After twenty pages I was already disgusted and could predict the ending. The main character was a drop-dead gorgeous television reporter who risks everything for a story. After about ten minutes with the hung-over, disheveled son of a famous Major whose story she wants to tell, she starts to feel horny. Must have been his gnarly breath. No surprise that they end up in bed that night. The plot is formulaic and the characters are stereotypes. There is nothing fresh or original. I threw it aside.
While I am perhaps too hard on myself, my children, and on hack writers, I think that maybe some people are too satisfied with a shoddy job. My friend David and I laugh that a friend must have had her nose job done by “Bob’s Pretty-Good Plastic Surgery.” You don’t want the contractor building your house to forget to nail down the temporary stairs, as Bill Fore found out the hard way as he crashed down three floors to the concrete basement. The trick, as I see it, is to walk that fine line between excellence and paralyzing perfectionism.