If you’d like to receive my blog in your in-box each week, click here.
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.”
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.
If you’d like to receive my blog in your in-box each week, click here.