On Writing Authentically and Pursuing the Perfect Smile

On Writing Authentically and Pursuing the Perfect Smile

On Writing Authentically and Pursuing the Perfect Smile

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A friend of mine sent me this article (gift link so you can get past the paywall) about the trend toward creating an absolutely perfect smile, and a cosmetic dentist on TikTok who’s gained a viral following by analyzing celebrity teeth and reporting on who has veneers.

Leaving aside the admitted concerns over publicly judging people’s appearances, this story has hit a chord with me on several levels, particularly what feels like society’s current obsession with perfection (as regular readers may know I’ve been pondering lately…).

Here’s how this obsession with “perfection” may manifest with authors:

  • Writers who dream of writing, but can’t seem to get started—out of fear of not being good enough, or intimidation because they worry they can’t compete with other authors, or “lack of ideas” (in quotes because you are a human and as such you are teeming with creative ideas), or “lack of time” (in quotes because if we want to write, we will find the time—even if it’s only snatched moments in the shower or dictating on our dog walks, while we commute, or doing chores)
  • Writers who write and rewrite and revise and edit and do it all over again, working on a manuscript for years—not in the healthy, building-a-story way that some require, but rather doubting and belaboring every scene, line, nuance for not yet being good enough to submit or publish
  • Writers who start countless stories, but never finish any
  • Writers who lose interest in a current story every time a shiny new thing pops its tiny head into their mind
  • Writers who are experiencing “writer’s block” (in quotes because I maintain this is not a thing—just an obstacle to our creativity that always has a specific cause, one we can hurdle if we only diagnose what that is and address it)
  • Writers who have so diligently followed whatever craft system has resonated with them that their story may be technically “perfect,” but they’ve stripped out the originality and life that makes a story stand out.

And so many other permutations of perfection paralysis.

Writers are as susceptible as anyone to society’s increasing obsession with perfection—perhaps, as sensitive creatures forever baring their tenderest and most vulnerable parts, even more so.

But trying to tell ourselves, “Don’t get hung up on perfection” is almost impossible in a society where its messages are everywhere: in ads, in social media, in filtered and Photoshopped selfies, and rampant in the media we consume.

Instead, maybe we should look at what “perfection” actually is and means—and reconsider whether it’s actually a valid value at all.

Perfection is an impossible standard

There is no such thing as a “perfect” anything—because the assessment of perfection requires some objective, uniformly agreed-upon standard that’s impossible to define.

For instance, this face is so freaking perfect in my estimation that IT HURTS MY EYEBALLS to look upon. I don’t want to like it, because I am a fan of quirky, unique looks, and for God’s sake, this is like a Michelangelo sculpture come to life, but I CANNOT LOOK AWAY. It’s not even real, right?

Yet a friend of mine and I have long disagreed about this assessment—she finds this face meh in the extreme. (Side note, however—when she met the owner of this face in person in LA, she said she was struck entirely mute by the sheer chiseled beauty of it, so there you are: Perfection is subjective not only from perception to perception, but situationally.)

When the definition of what is perfect can’t be agreed upon by any two humans on earth, why would we set ourselves up to pursue a goal that can’t possibly be reached—one that, in fact, doesn’t actually exist?

Perfection strips away originality, voice, and authenticity

Perhaps because it’s an impossible standard, impossible to achieve, the pursuit of perfection usually winds up denuding its subject of its unique, individual features that make it a standout. Specifically I see this in stories when the pursuit of a technically “perfect” one that follows some perceived formula or dogma for what makes a successful story has rendered something flat, lifeless, and homogenous.

Can you imagine this iconic face with a “perfect” smile? Or this one? Or this one? A “perfect” set of veneers would alter something fundamental about these people—including one of the most charming and memorable actors I’ve been enjoying lately partly because her “flawed” smile gives her such an endearing and unique look.

One takeaway from the article about Hollywood dental work, to me, is the fact that in almost every case of before-and-afters, the perfectly white, perfectly uniform, perfectly aligned smiles of the “afters” result in something just ever so gently creepy and disturbing, like Ross after his extreme teeth whitening incident. Our minds perceive that there’s something wrong and unnatural about perfection—it’s why CGI actors always feel a little “off.” We may not be able to pinpoint what’s weird about it, but we sense it.

Perfection is boring as hell

This face and figure literally won the highest award for perfection at the 2018 Westminster dog show…yet to my eye it looks a bit bloated and unnatural and like something I don’t want to touch or play with, like a Cabbage Patch doll. This one, however, I find unique and adorable and I WOULD KISS THAT WIDDLE FACE, YES, I WOULD!

Of course, this is a completely subjective assessment—which is our point—but even if most people can agree on what constitutes perfection, by the very necessity of having to appeal to “most people,” perfection aims for the broadest possible tastes…and that means avoiding the more interesting, memorable features that may draw in the most fervent appreciation in a smaller subset.

You often sacrifice individual perceivers’ assessment of quality in the pursuit of quantity when you pander to universally agreed upon standards of anything. Everyone can agree—perfection is “nice.” It’s “lovely.”

It’s milquetoast.  

Don’t try to write a perfect story. Don’t try to present exhaustively developed characters whose every life experience you’ve examined and developed, a plot you’ve fit into the mold of someone else’s definition of perfection, a story whose elements comply with every “rule” of writing you’ve read.

Give me the face I can’t forget, the smile that comes from inside and reaches the eyes and hits my heart and tells me something of who that person is—not the sanitized, homogenized one someone purchased at the dentist from a catalog.

Give me the piece of art that engenders a powerful reaction in me, not a tepid appreciation for the artist’s painstaking adherence to the principles of painting.

Give me a song that gets inside me and hits a powerful chord and liquefies my innards, not one that faithfully follows classic chord progression and structure.

Give me the book that sucks me in, that transports me, that wrings me out and leaves me thinking—and feeling—for days, weeks…years—not the one some media outlet or award board has hailed as “the most luminous, lapidary voice of our generation.”

Give me a story that speaks powerfully to something desperately personal and unique in me, because it represents something desperately personal and unique in the author. Give me that connection of imperfection.

Don’t try to write a perfect story. Don’t try to present exhaustively developed characters whose every life experience you’ve faithfully examined and developed and recorded in an exhaustive character bible, a plot you’ve fit into the mold of someone else’s definition of perfection, a story whose elements comply with every “rule” of writing you’ve read.

Write the story that feels right to you. Make it the best you can. Consider your reader enough to make that story as readable and complete and engaging as you can–but not to the point where you are trying to make it all things to all readers and homogenize it to bland, perfect veneers. Let it reflect you–your voice, your aesthetic, your style.

Even if that’s not “perfect.” Trust me, it’ll be a lot more interesting than if it were.

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12 Comments. Leave new

  • I absolutely love what you said about writer’s block and your ideas here. As writers trying to get noticed we often hear something like write to trend or write to genre or trope. As someone who just writes stuff that is interesting to me, I’ve never understood how one even does this. I feel compelled by certain characters and ideas usualy because they are not perfect or standard in any way. The funny thing is that the least perfect characters are the ones people love. The character I thought everyone was going to hate in my most recent novel is the one everyone connects with.

    • Maria Oskwarek
      October 5, 2023 5:39 pm

      Thank you for this! I need it tattooed on my brain.

    • I think that’s so true! In my writing, but also in my reading and what I watch, it’s always the fascinatingly flawed characters I find most interesting and usually invest in most. Because they reflect what feels true and real to me, probably. How can we relate to “perfection” when it’s such an unnatural artifice? And I think “writing to trope” or the market is a viable sales technique for certain authors’ business models, but it’s never been my bag either. Feels like creating in a straitjacket. Thanks for the comment, friend.

  • If I could eat this post and have it nourish my cells and fortify my bones so it’s wisdom were always with me, I’d take a huge bite right now.

  • When my son was three, I forbid the word perfect in our house. My son became frustrated after my husband several times had told him that something our son had done was “perfect.” My son would then try to emulate what he’d done or aim for everything to be perfect. My son’s frustration broke my heart and I saw the pain it caused him. Once we omitted the word perfect from our vocabulary, and focused on my son doing his best, his frustration eased, and everything became pleasurable to him again.

    • I LOVE THIS, Samantha. “Perfect” has always been dissonant to my ear too, for the same reason–such a high, impossible bar we can inadvertently set for kids, setting them up for lifetime of perfectionism without realizing it. I bet your husband didn’t even realize what he was saying–it’s so inculcated in us. Thanks for sharing this–sometimes I forget myself and find myself using the word, and this is a good reminder to strike that false goal from my vocabulary.

  • I am pinning the sidebar quote to my wall! I needed this. I need to read it every day.

  • Garry LaFollette
    October 8, 2023 10:25 pm

    Disclaimer: I am unpublished in long form fiction, and perhaps some of you who are will shake your heads in dismay at my naiveite.

    Now that that’s out of the way. Something I’ve learned from the forms I am published in is that no aspect of the experience; receiving communication of acceptance, signing a contract, depositing a check, killing time in an airport a couple thousand miles from home and wandering into a bookstore and seeing something of mine on a shelf, none of that individually or collectively has brought me as much pleasure as the actual writing has.

    Not to dismiss any of those wonderfully satisfying things. But they’re fleeting. And money, lord knows it takes wings. The reward, the one that endures, is the writing. That is the one pleasure I trust in. I am hesitant, no, make that reluctant as hell, to trade the experience of creating and in a sense living with my flawed, feverish, and at times downright f*cked characters and their chaotic, compromised lives, for some finely calculated all things to all people perversity of perfection. The give exceeds the get.

    Mr. Faulkner once famously advised to ‘kill your darlings.’ As someone who over writes first drafts before chainsaw editing the indulgences, I get it. But when it comes to characters (not his point) . . . yes, kill the darlings before they hatch, but be damn sure to resurrect the devils. Perfect eyes are a gift of genetics. A pirate’s eyepatch is a story.

    Sure, somewhere in the back of my mind there is the sense that some disembodied critic or the nebulous masses will respond better to this or to that. Well fine, go for it, but if that is what ‘they’ want to read, they may have to write it themselves.

    tl:dr Call this the irony of perfectionism. For a time in my misspent youth I found writing greeting card verse a useful outlet for my fondness for wordplay. Had a handful of topic areas I focused on. Thought it would behoove me to extend my range. Crafted a verse tight to spec for a friendship card. Check arrived shortly thereafter with comp samples to follow. There had been two edits, insertion of a first line and a last line. The dang thing had been repositioned as a fathers day card. Became a perennial seller, rolled out every June for maybe a decade. The weird part? My father – a man so bent on suicide by scotch that he made Faulkner look like a teetotaler – and I had a non relationship at the time. My market scrutinized attempt at the perfect card to give a friend resulted in my having to fiend off more pseudo-Freudian interpretations than anything I’ve ever put on paper.

    • Garry, I love that you stay connected to the source of what fulfills you in your writing career–the actual writing. I’ve just been working on a speech I’m giving about that very topic. It’s the one aspect of our creative careers that is fully within our control–and the propulsive spark of them. This business, as you say, is so mercurial and random and erratic–having that “home base” of what makes it truly meaningful and rewarding to us is the solid foundation we can lay for ourselves.

      Such weird ironies about your greeting-card experience. Another great reminder of how little we control the product of our writing–only the process. Thanks for a thoughtful comment.


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