Writing and the Importance of Imperfection

Let me tell you the truth: You will never write the perfect anything.

You will not write the perfect poem, nor the perfect essay. All of your novels will be riddled with flaws and failings and weak writing. Even if you spend eight weeks on your next blog post, it will not be perfect.

Let me tell you the truth: Perfect is boring. Flaws are good.

This is the story of how I learned to embrace my writing imperfections. Hopefully, you will learn a thing or two from this tale.

It was the middle of winter, and beads of sweat slid down my face. I sat in the sweltering breath of the Furnace, waiting for my guide to show up. Birds flitted in the trees, warming their tiny bodies at the edge of the heat, their chirping calls drowned out by the periodic cracking of glass.

Behind me, a man barked, “Powder coming through!” and I barely had time to jump out of the way before the man swept a long metal pole in my direction. The pole was easily taller than the man, and at the end it carried a sort of crucible filled with a glittering blue powder.

“Are you the writer?” he called over his shoulder, jerking his head up and down until the welder’s mask slapped into place over his face.

“Yes, I-”

“You better watch, ’cause you’re about to learn something.”

Still holding the pole in both hands, he kicked a lever on the Furnace’s clay face. A chain rattled, and a door fell open. Even standing several paces behind him, I could feel the jet of heat that threatened to melt the skin off my bones.

The man seemed not to mind the heat, though the collar of his leathery workman’s tunic was drenched with sweat. He shoved the crucible into the flame. The Furnace belched, and a swirl of cinders shot out. I let out an embarrassing yelp as one landed on my arm, but the man was either too preoccupied, or he deigned not to notice.

He hoisted the pole in both hands, twisting it and angling it in the Furnace, sending out more showers of sparks.

“Tell me why you’re here,” he barked again.

I had to shout over the roaring flames, “I came because I’m stuck. I write and write, and when I go back to read it – it’s terrible. I have never finished anything because it’s all garbage. How can I write better?” It was uncomfortable speaking to his back, and I was not sure he was listening.

He heaved the pole out of the fire, and performed a twisting motion as he half-jogged, half-skipped away from the Furnace. The heat of the crucible passed by me, and the very air wavered.

“You’re not stuck,” he said plainly, as he carried the liquefied glass away from the Furnace.

“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to simultaneously keep up and out of his way, “You don’t think I’m writing garbage, then?”

“No,” he said, in between a bouncing step, “You are definitely writing garbage. But that’s just how it works. Watch.”

Every time the blue liquid seeped over the edges of the crucible, he seemed to catch it with another spin of the pole until he had a hot, azure ball that seemed to melt the air itself. He slapped the ball down onto a stone slab, and spread it around like icing on a cake. Flecks of gold and silver swirled in the blue, bits of dust and other debris that found their way into the glass.

He took a hammer, and scraped off the liquid that still clung to the metal pole. Working quickly, he hammered out the liquid that refused to lay down, until he had a slender blue sheet.

“This,” he flipped up his mask, and gestured at the blue sheet, “This is your first draft. It’s not pretty, but it’s complete. That’s the most important part of writing anything – finishing it. Now this first draft is filled with impurities. There’s a pattern, sure, but it’s not very thought out. It’s a mess – and that’s what we want.”

I don’t understand. You want me to write a mess? You want me to write badly?”

“Yup. And then, you have to let it cool. In your case,  you have to stop looking at your draft for at least a week. In my case, it takes only a few minutes on a nice, chilly winter evening to do the trick.”

“Then what?”

“Then you gotta break it.”

He flipped his mask down, and before I could get to a safe distance, he brought up his hammer, and smacked the sheet of glass. It splintered outward from the blow, pressure manifesting in cracks – cracks that separated shards of glass.

Testing here and there with tiny clicks of his hammer, he smacked the glass again in three or four precise locations, until there was not a single unbroken piece of glass larger than the palm of his hand.

“This is the editing process. Well, for you, the editing process is a bit longer. Where I break it once, you get to break your writing six, seven, or more times.”

He picked up a sizable chunk of glass, and held it up to the waning sunlight. The sun’s rays shot through it, illuminating a whole world of glistening impurities.

“It’s beautiful.”

“Of course it is,” he said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, “I’m a professional.”

Even through his mask, I could tell he was looking me up and down, “As for you, writer, well… Anyway, this piece of glass – this is what you’re looking for. See, the writing process is a lot like making this glass. If you’re writing a book, you have to write at a steady pace. Write too fast, and you’ll end up with an unfixable tangle of loose-ends and shallow characters. But if you take too much time, editing and re-editing while you work, you’ll never get the flames hot enough to melt something as beautiful as this.”

“And what about the imperfections? It’s easy for you to say ‘imperfections look great,’ but as a writer, I don’t see it that way.”

“Well, it’s true. Imperfections are beautiful. The impurities that come from writing are what make your stories interesting.”

“How is that?”

“Imperfections are spur-of-the-moment changes that you didn’t see coming. Just like I’m never going to sell a whole sheet of glass, you’re never going to publish a first draft. Imperfections are how we make our art – and imperfections are how you make your art different.”

He picked out a few more slices of glass, and set them aside. Then he swept the rest of the shards off the table, into a bucket brimming with broken glass.

“When you edit,” he said, “That’s when you go back, to make sure everything is just how you want it. But when you’re writing that first draft – don’t stop yourself. Don’t think too hard, and do not go back if you can help it. I can’t unmelt glass – and you shouldn’t try to unwrite your imperfections.”

Before I left the Furnace, my mind buzzing with his advice, I watched him pour the broken glass into a grinder, and crush it to powder. As he set about turning the old glass into new liquid, I wrote all that I had learned:

  • Imperfections are beautiful. Imperfections give rise to engaging characters with realistic flaws. Imperfections allow the writer to be surprised by their own writing, which is how the most exciting stories are birthed.
  • Imperfections make every story different. If you use them wisely, your imperfections can distinguish your voice. While you may see yourself as an “imperfect” writer, one of your readers will undoubtedly love you for the way you write – no matter how imperfectly.
  • If you try to fix your imperfections before finishing your draft, you will never finish anything. Would you rather write an imperfect novel, or never write a novel at all?
  • All writing is imperfect. All of your favorite books are imperfect. All of your favorite movies are imperfect. Even this blog post is pock-marked with imperfections.

 

Write Now: Two characters are in a competition (a race, a duel, competing for a job, etc.). Set a timer for twenty minutes and write about how one of the characters wins BECAUSE of his/her/its imperfections.  

Be sure to respond to this post with your story, or talk about what you learned from this writing exercise.

Related: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Outline

 

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