Where my three year-old son’s closet door meets its edge, there is a crack. A tiny crack, barely enough to slide a thick piece of paper in. Like all closet doors, it simply doesn’t close perfectly.
“Fix the crack,” he begs, last in a list of ritualistic requests he makes, stalling the moment when he is alone with himself and the dark (if you don’t count the 20 stuffed animals, two night-lights, six layers of blankets, tank of goldfish, white noise and more). And believe me, I don’t blame him for his dislike of the crack. In stories and, perhaps, somewhere deeper in our psyches, it is through cracks that monsters and ghosts, stealers of souls, and doppelgangers creep and crawl.
And yet, other than hanging a curtain over there, or resettling our house on its ever-shifting foundation, I cannot fix the crack. I press the door hard against its jamb and say “The crack is closed,” and he grumbles into his monkey pillow, each of us accepting the truth in all its imperfection.
My husband goes in each night to offer a “second kiss.” For a long time, this was just a bonus the boy accepted with gratitude. Then, somewhere along the way, even this stopped being good enough. “You ruined Mama’s crack,” he tells his father. “You broke Mama’s bump” (a pile of blankets). Anxiety rises, frustrations heighten, and soon, I’m back in there with a stern tone, attempting to explain to my child that perfection of cracks and bumps by tired parents after long days of hard work is impossible. All that’s left to do is to bumble our way to sleep.
Then I go to bed and worry that he’s gotten this urge toward perfection, forcing symmetry on what is naturally a mess, from me. After all, I labor at a little screen flowing words out onto a page for a couple hours a day, and then spend months and years attempting to beat them into submission.
I rail against myself when a rejection or criticism rolls in, and throw beautifully written books down in frustration at how long it may take me to get there.
And yet…I’m learning, slowly, to love the mess. I’m knee-deep in the mire of a novel I started 5 years ago. One I’ve finished twice and am now deconstructing and re-building a third time with some of the remaining parts. I am loving the mess, because it is real, because in the rubble of what I let go there is so much more raw beauty than I was allowing myself to see.
I used to think that perfectionism was a virtue: possessed by a person—a perfectionist—dedicated to striving for the best, upholding a high and noble standard.
My son is helping me see that this is not true. Even a finished act of writing is not perfect. Strip the cover, put it in manuscript form, I guarantee that anyone would find flaws in the most lauded book on the shelves.
In fact, writing is a lot like a child left alone in a room with a bunch of art supplies. In the aftermath, what you’ll find is a lot of creative fun, possibly even genius, and a whole lot of mess—sometimes a mess so monumental you ask yourself was it worth it? (It was). But try to add perfection (too many rules, not enough chaos) too soon to that child’s process and you’ll have a melting down child and just as much of a mess.
Don’t get me wrong: studying and applying craft is important, work is important; each done with understanding that there is room to do it over, do it again, take it further. Even after a work has been sent off and turned in, some editor with a red pen, or even a reader only in her mind, will continue to refine it, change it, revise it.
Perfectionism is a form of control. In writing, it is a muse-killer. It is a form of not allowing oneself to make mistakes, be afraid, or feel what comes up in the dark room, even with all your stuffed animals and white lights, or your writing books and online classes.
There will always be cracks, and rather than spackling over them, we need to pay attention to what comes through, because it is probably dense and rich with wisdom, truth, or hope, even if at first, it scares us a little.