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Bigger Pictures: Perils of Perfection, Part 2

“If I waited for perfection… I wouldn’t write a word.”

           ~ Margaret Atwood

I’ve been a Margaret Atwood fan for decades. I came across her work in the late ‘80s when I took a Dystopian Literature course. Some of the books, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I devoured years before. But I didn’t know The Handmaid’s Tale, or its Canadian author.

Margaret Atwood blew me away.

Not only did Atwood’s novel excel at the dystopian level, it also sparkled at the sentence level, and every self-respecting writing student of that distant age (like yours truly) developed an almost perverse eye for what happened in a text at the sentence level. To my developing eye, Margaret Atwood’s sentences were perfect. They shimmer with clarity and convey complex human thought lucidly, even if the character isn’t particularly lucid. This kind of thing doesn’t come through on Hulu.

So, of course, like any novice besotted with the work of a master writer, I got intimidated by her prowess. I mean, if I couldn’t write like that…well, what was the point?

Which brings us back again to our opening quote: If I waited for perfection I wouldn’t write a word. Come, unpack with me.

If I waited. Our great woman of letters tells us that avoidance isn’t going to get it done. Atwood knows writing something even just “good enough” requires work. (She also quipped that the greatest writing invention is the trash can.) Moreover, she implies that perfection at that earliest stage is out of the question.

And then we get I wouldn’t write a word, the frightening inertia that too often tags along with being overly perfectionist.  

I once went through a bout of writer’s block that lasted nearly two years. While there were more than a few factors that dried me up, I later determined that the biggest factor was fear, and a very special type of fear at that. I called it fear of criticism not yet voiced. The damning criticism that blocked the flow of words I once took for granted didn’t come from anyone actually directing criticism from the outside, all the nagging criticism lived in my only in my own head, whispered in my own voice. Criticism not yet voiced.

What I had to learn (the hard way, of course) is that I had to get out of my own way. Nobody else said the things I heard in my head. Workshop taught me to filter outside criticism, to consider the source and what have you. But once I realized that I had gotten in my own way, I was able to write again. I just had to get by criticism not yet voiced.

This little epiphany got me writing again. It can work for you, too.

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

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