Sincerity vs. Perfection

I read a lot.

That’s actually an understatement. But there’s no way to make you understand how much I read without giving you a count, and no way to make you believe that I’m not lying. In 2013, I read over two hundred novels, ebooks, and comic books. Who knows how many short stories, one-shots, articles, etc. I’m a reader and I always have been. That’s what I’m trying to make you understand. And when you do anything interpretive long enough, you realize there’s a natural progression from consuming material to creating material. Reading led to writing. So I wrote and wrote and wrote. Even before I realized someone could grow up to write for a living, it was what I wanted to do with all of my spare time.

But eventually, it clicked–it had to be possible to write for a living because the people who made these books were authors. So I went to Pratt to “become a writer.” I studied style, structure, word choice, perspective, theme, resonance, setting, metaphor, and a million other concepts. I learned to edit my own work and the work of others’ with brutal detachment, to cut everything I didn’t absolutely need, to keep working and striving for perfection, to pour my soul into the prose, then cut it out when it got a little too obvious that it was my soul–right there, see where it was?–and go back and work on it again. Write. Rewrite. Edit. Rewrite. Edit. Rewrite. Edit. Rewrite. It’s still not good enough. Fail better. Write what hurts. Kill your darlings. Etc., etc.

But I didn’t study reading. Or, more specifically readers. Here’s something they don’t tell you in writing school: Readers will forgive almost anything if the story is good.

[Honestly, I can understand why they don’t tell you that. When you walk into art school, you’re so full of stock metaphors and melodramatic prose and the certainty that no one is as deep intellectually or emotionally as you. But I think by the time you’re ready to walk out again, the reader thing should at the very least be mentioned.]

What do I mean by a “good” story? A story that stays true to itself, characters who do what only they would do, but more than anything, sincerity. A writer who wants with all of their heart and soul to tell you this story. The books I love the most, the ones that affected me the most, I could feel the author dying to get the story out.  They didn’t hold back just because someone might’ve called them an un-self-aware hack and they didn’t give up when they couldn’t get the words on the paper as perfect as the words in their head.

It might sound like an obvious logical step, but it took me forever to realize just how connected writing and reading really are. I spent four years learning how to look at my work the way a writer would, then went out into a world where most people are readers. When I finally had a story worth telling, I couldn’t get it perfect enough to fit the dream I had for it.

There’s an awesome list of rules for storytelling that Pixar put out a year or so ago. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around #8. “Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you can have both, but move on. Do better next time.”

“But can’t I do better this time if I keep trying?” you might ask. I did.

Maybe you can do better, but you can’t grow. And sooner or later, you’ll realize that you can’t remember what was so important about that story you had to tell. You might even destroy everything sincere and replace it with some amalgam of what you imagine the rest of the world thinks of as perfect. Trust me, that will be much, much worse than accidentally using the same body language in two different places to show happiness.

Don’t think I’m directing this tirade at you. I’m telling myself all of this. I have to, over and over again, or I’ll never finish anything. I worked and worked on How to Kill Yourself in a Small Town. To the point where I have anxiety attacks just looking at its folder on my desktop. If I forced myself, I could keep working on it. I could tell myself, “Just one more draft–this one will be perfect” for the thousandth time. But I need to let it go. I need to move on. More than anything, I need to get this story out into the world because there was a time I was so on fire with the need to tell it that I breathed, ate, drank, and bled it.

Near the beginning of 2014, I will be publishing How to Kill Yourself in a Small Town. It won’t be perfect, but it will be sincere–which I’m finally learning is the more important of the two.
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Update 12/21/13:
A few readers have expressed concern that I’m attacking experimental or painstakingly careful literary writing. I understand their concern, but I’m definitely not. We all know I have a chip on my shoulder about elitism (you might say I’m an elitist-elitist), but this is a completely different matter. There’s a sincerity and passion to experimental and literary writing, too. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing in, if the sincerity isn’t there, the reader will feel it.

I’m also not attacking the editing process or saying that less editing is better. But there is such a thing as over-editing. It’s a fine line, but once you’ve stepped over it, you can feel it all the way down to your soul. It hurts. It turns your story from your labor of love into something more like Frankenstein’s monster. It starts to feel out of control, beyond help, and disgusting. That’s what I’m attacking, the impulse to keep fixing until we’ve undone all the good work along with the bad.

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