Many applaud ‘go easy on yourself’ writing advice. More embrace the ‘keep it simple’ or ‘read Hemingway and try to do what he has done’ suggestions. Whatever else you decide to do as a writer do not try to be a perfectionist, has ironically proved popular elsewhere.
Don’t try to make a cold mountain out of your creative molehill as that creates more questions than answers for a writer.
What prompted me to write this blog post was a medium story about the topic of avoiding the perceived pitfalls of perfection, a very popular post that popped up on my screen over the weekend, it had received sixteen thousand claps of endorsement and over 150 glowing comments of approval on Medium since being published there in October 2020. I just paid to become a full member of Medium last weekend so I was exploring the platform further than I had previously, despite initially joining it around the time I finished writing up my PhD (2013/14) I only now forked out the annual 50 yoyos fee to get greater access as a medium member.
The particular medium story advocated against perfectionism but also stressed that smart people should beware of their fear of success. It claimed sometimes smart writers write and write and write because they simply can’t bring themselves to stop.
They just love writing.
There also seemed to be a kind of undercurrent running through that story that smart people (or at least the ‘too smart’ friends of the author) aren’t really that smart because they hone, perfect, fundamentally overwork, over complicate, maybe even actually overwrite, and thus the implication is that if that is smart reading you on medium then you as a writer are ultimately doomed to fail to live up to your own obviously ridiculous high standards.
From the positive responses to that post the writer herself rightly should be applauded, she had obviously and successfully persuaded readers that her ‘cold mountain’ theory is not only acceptable, but it is also completely true, and thus utterly valid as a method or approach for any would be smart writer seeking or reading writing advice on Medium.
Medium has ‘Disqualifying story types’ that it regards as in breach of their internal distribution standards. The first of which is, no stories about medium. Thus while I would have liked to write this piece over on Medium their other rules also clearly state I am prohibited from writing a medium story as a response or rebuttal to another medium story.
Despite in my view it being completely obvious that the very popular post I had just read demanded a response, just as obviously justified by their own rules, just not a response on medium. Fair enough, here we go.
The post began with the Author’s story of ‘a too smart friend’ who couldn’t finish her PhD, however the writer came to her aid by explaining her own ‘cold mountain principle’ which proved with certainty that sometimes smart people need ordinary friends to tell them to stop being that perfectionist, and/or to take their work and give it to literary agents, since that is what had happened with cold mountain author Charles Frazier apparently, when he wouldn’t stop writing his book, a friend just gave it to an agent. And then the book went on to become the blockbuster I was just about to order. Which is all again even more fair enough one must suppose, I hadn’t previously read cold mountain, so me being me, I tabbed over, ordered it there and then, had a faint memory of reading that the Oxford educated author Rachel Cusk had said or written something similar about a friend suggesting and then insisting she publish a book, and then I went back to reading the cold mountain post on Medium.
I was really thrown by that statement, but continued to try to get through the article, the rest was reasonably well written in a grammatical sense, but that quote stuck, supposedly from Dunning-kruger, it began itching at me, the rest of the article seemed to try to speak to any readers who wished to be told: it is alright to be smart you, but it is better to be smart you as a non perfectionist, your work only has to be okay because as the bottom line (of the article itself) even said, ‘your version of okay is already mind-blowing.’
The just okay medium post is very successful, psychologically subtle in respect of supporting the aspirations and ambitions of would be smart writers who can’t or now won’t do perfection. However in my own personal view the article is so obviously flawed and really unhelpful specifically to any smart writers who are currently stuck in their own version of perfectionist nirvana, specifically those writers without a not so smart friend to take their perfectionist book to an agent.
As I’m sure you know the studies conducted by Dunning and Kruger were only completed and popularized in the early 21st century, specifically when they became available online in the academic journal ‘Advances in Experimental Social Psychology’ in June of 2011. Chapter five – The Dunning–Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance.
My picture of the writer above is one of my early writing heroes Alexander Pope, born in 1688 who died 278 years ago in 1744, he was a master of the heroic couplet, the son of a draper who produced mock epics, satires, and perfectionist pastorals, all in the early eighteenth century.
His great work ‘The Dunicad’ was a satirical assault on the shallowness of his contemporary literary foes, however it is from his poem ‘essay on criticism’ we receive these lines:
“A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.“
It is obvious these 18th century lines are a direct appeal for thinking writers or poets or writers on medium to drink deep of their subject, meaning at very least know what it is you are writing about and what might have nothing to do with two twenty first century social scientists.
As someone who successfully completed my own PhD I was blessed by first doing an MA. The MA as a post graduate research degree had an entire semester of research methods, that is generally how writers within academia are trained, you are exposed to methods that allow you to trace the sources of specific elements of knowledge, to ensure truth, veracity, it prevents you from proffering an opinion that is not factually nor academically valid and getting likes that are an insult to anyone who has actually done a research degree.
So if you are a smart PhD student (like that story author’s friend at the beginning) yes you will be thrown into a deep web of facts and references, within a matrix of knowledge and information that could theoretically see you spend the rest of your reading life lovingly researching, unbinding, weaving and pulling at those threads and connections to create a valid, informed opinion, like an eighteenth century, Scottish tartan weaver, near blind from the light of privilege blinding your every thread.
So yes theoretically you might never get around to finishing the writing up of your thesis. That fairly remote possibility is just one reason of many reasons why at least one intramural supervisor is appointed to each PhD or MA candidate, to offer professional supervision.
Institutionally there is a limit of ten years placed on PhD students. Academia is all too aware that you can fall down a rabbit hole of PhD (or even MA/MSc/MBA) perfection very easily.
Now I can read an author like Malcom Gladwell or similar who successfully combines popular psychology and contemporary storytelling in their non-fiction. I can also sit here overweight watching the utterly mesmerizing consummate ease with which many elite athletes balletically exert themselves physically within a field or on a pitch.
What is clearly visible to me in their exquisite movement is the result of many invisible years of training, dedication, practice, knowledge, perfectionism, failure, strain, injury, recovery, and focus. It is that very hidden from view perfectionism that gives rise to truly exceptional human performances, on track, field, or on the page.
In a similar vain to Pope, the American Vince Lomardi is often famously quoted as saying “show me a good loser and I will show you a loser.” but the second half of his quote is also rarely offered: “But show me a gracious loser and I’ll show you someone who will always be a winner.”
Perfectionists from my limited knowledge of them, and I have the utter privilege of knowing a few, are simply not adverse to that proverbial losing, they are in fact gracious losers, many of whom become those unseen always winners of Vince Lomardi.
To my knowledge perfectionists seek to create something that reflects their true level of practiced ability, they know and understand that they can create something ‘exceptional’ and that is why, the very idea of someone else’s just good enough, is never ever going to be good enough for them or me, even though I haven’t had a clap anywhere thank God.
Because the author brought up their ‘effect’ theory I will include another actual quote from the author David Dunning describing it:
Here I pause simply to wonder what might have happened if both Charles Frazier and the author’s PhD friend had each been left alone, to their own individual perfectionist devices and not subjected to interventions ?
It is an absolute truism that talent alone will not see you through. We live in an era of a multitude of incredibly erudite and clever writers brimming with talent, sadly many of whom are still flipping burgers, teaching, or writing marketing copy while yes lesser talents manage to prosper in the market and online. The writing market is still supersaturated, ‘okay’ will simply never cut it, unless you are already independently wealthy, very well connected in some manner or already supremely content in your own okay Dunning-kruger medium sized skin.
It is a fact that most professionals prefer to work with actual talent, they also want to work with actual talent that will work as hard or even harder than they will.
Most professionals I know presume that if you are a fellow professional with talent, then you will also put in the additional required hard work too. Here again despite the high quality bar of required humility and work ethic there is an oversupply in the commercial market, there are thousands of already talented writers who are fully prepared to work harder than anyone else, a truth that is simply a given within certain parts of the writing industries.
Certainly with respect to screenwriting what differentiates those who get the gig and those who don’t is: the smart hard worker is also real, and by real I mean that the hardworking actual talent also lives in the real world, knows those quotes and their ramifications in their entirety, and then some.
Lots of would-be writers make that mistake, they see writers working, working, while they merely work on the assumption that it is their talent that is driving that other writer.
Incredibly ambitious people seem to always succeed, many often do as some level, ambition will certainly bring you to places, both high and low, if it is your main motive force.
Being in the right place at the right time can be all the opportunity an ambitious person requires, luck, brass neck, or simply the powers of persuasion that arise from unbridled ambition may do the rest. But can such success on someone else’s terms really constitute success for an ambitious person?
“Incredibly talented people are secretly terrified of this, too. They think if they sink an enormous amount of time and energy into something and it doesn’t pay off with early retirement or a Nobel Prize, then their life is over, and they’ll never make anything again.”Above is my second and final quote from the medium article.
We have all encountered smart individuals whose ambition is much larger than their actual ability. Again the above assertion from the story is simply not supported by my own experience of highly talented people, first attempt in learning (fail) is often how rejections or revisions are framed, all writing is rewriting, failure is a paradigm of progress in all software development, you must break things apart to really understand them, that allows you to move forward, incredibly talented people whom I know accept that drafts, rejections, failures, set-backs, are all part of the overall process of learning about and perfecting their chosen craft.
If you are serious about acquiring the skills needed to succeed in your chosen profession then failure must become your friend too, in that second half sense of the Lombardi quote I used above. You need to become an occasional gracious loser to ensure that you are always a winner, specifically with regard to your own writing life, never straying close to the sun ensures you will never be burned.
I would tentatively suggest that, if at all feasible, writers should take a short professional pottery course if they want to understand the difference between overwork and perfection. Perfection like pottery making itself, has several stages, with most of the initial ones involving complete immersion in the art itself.
Ambitious people will often see skills or mastering the craft as merely a vehicle to get them to a destination called success.
It is a truism in my life that I personally learn more from failure than I do from success, (you must have learned a hullava lot by now then I hear any remaining reading cynics among you say) if we succeed we sit back and feel good about that success, perhaps begin to see or dream of further or future success.
When I fail, as I inevitably do, I must conduct reviews, autopsies, if it’s a project we pull apart what happened, what exactly I did, to discover what didn’t work or why it didn’t work.
Screenwriters and Video game writers know this process more than most I feel. Seeing what you consider to be perfection fail, be shot down unceremoniously, has a whole different quality of learning to it, when compared to the advocated ‘just good enough’. The scale of learning is disproportionate since we must learn at level of psyche (or soul). That Dunning-Kruger Pope conflation feels like a supreme learning moment that simply passed the non perfectionist just okay medium author by.
From my perspective the story of Charles Frazier can also be summarized as: Charles wrote four published books one of which became an astounding commercial success. If he had been left alone by his agent knowing friend, how many successful books might he have written without the consequent external commercial pressures brought upon him by the early phenomenal success of that first one. I also wonder just how different that final PhD thesis destination would have been, and how the consequent Doctor might have felt, if all that Dunning-kruger mountain stuff had been left out entirely of her academic journey.
For me it is that creative writers journey not the destination nor output that brings joy for a writer in love with writing. Those who don’t have that writing gra are simply not yet equipped to understand that.
The more sophisticated and complex, the deeper and richer the internal creative landscape for this writer. I welcome readers, they are rare and I completely cherish each one that gives of their time to read what I write, but obviously the writing must come first, otherwise what’s to read ?
It was one of the smartest people this planet has ever seen, Albert Einstein who coined one of my favorites: “Things should be made simple, but never simpler.”
We would never presume to tell a nuclear scientist nor a neurosurgeon that their work, if they think it is okay, is obviously good enough.
Why would anyone consider offering that kind of advice to a writer ?
And why would sixteen thousand readers applaud it ?
Leave that cold mountain for the valleys of perfection, be the best you can be, and then be better, strive for perfection if you can.