Words on the Street, Revisited #33: Practice Makes Imperfect

Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.

It’s not a typo; you read it right. 


Forget, for a moment, the belief that a consistent, strict practice composed of firm discipline, sacrifice, and repetition will yield a shiny, new and perfect something.


A perfect book? A perfect poem? A perfect sentence?


I know it might seem bold of me, even a little brass, to suggest a new approach, if even for a day or two: Keep up the practice, increase those reps, but let go of the hard and sharp goals that may, for some of us, induce sweat, sleepless nights and abrupt changes in body temperature.  How about leaning into an endgame that looks a little softer? One that represents progress but maybe without all the pressure and, dare I say, expectations of perfection.


 “It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know, but in order to find out what I know,” says Patricia Hampl. Here we have twenty-five words that, when strung together, represent wisdom and a big nod to and hallelujah for process. To letting the ideas flow. To accepting mess in that getting-to-know-what-you-know period when you’re writing to find out. 


Hampl’s brilliance reminds us that we can hope for and believe in the golden nuggets or magic string—the things that charge and energize not only the writer but the writing—as we are paving the road to get there on the page. 


You can believe with all the fire and fury inside of you that a stunning piece of writing exists, nuggets, strings and all, but usually it takes dragging several rakes along the “paper trail” to create a visible path.


You might be thinking: Well, why can’t you have both? A messy process and a perfect package at the end of it all? Sure, on the surface of things, I suppose some writers can play in the mud and clean up real nice when the company comes. But I guarantee there would still be a few specks of dirt under those fingernails.


Maybe practice doesn’t really make perfect, after all. It can make almost perfect and just shy of perfect, but it can’t make perfect perfect. Because what is perfect perfect anyway? A few words come to mind: unknowable, inaccessible, one-dimensional. 


Not real.


What regular, realistic and accepting practice makes is work that comes from a place that is less about battle and more about becoming. Less about harder and higher. More about time and tenderness.


This looser, yet still accountable, practice can encourage the construction of characters, stories and structures that are the opposite of perfect perfect: they are knowable, accessible, multi-dimensional.


And real.




Speaking of real, enter Anne Lamott and her charms on perfectionism:


  • Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.
  • Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.


Funny how we ended up back in the yard. Back to the blank page. Here we are making messes, celebrating all the is not perfect. Here we are, practicing imperfectionism which is not a dirty word, no matter how many hours we play in the mud.



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