Sunday, December 27, 2009


This is about perfection.

            Five days before Christmas my husband and I decided it was time to get serious about this holiday. After years of planning months in advance to get our gift shopping done on time and mapping out long drives to both sets of in-laws, we only had to move from one room to another and shop for ourselves and a few friends. Life had become easy—to such an extent that the annual holiday fever floated by us like a cloud of stale cigarette smoke. We sneezed and ignored it. And then we looked at the calendar.

            We drove up to a local farm store where we purchased more than we could eat in a week (I choose food on the basis of color and smell), bought a tree, and ordered a turkey, to be picked up the next day. So, on Monday, after work, up I went, collected the big bird, and drove home on criminally unlighted roads still icy from an earlier storm. My preparations were about done.

            The tree made it inside on Sunday and we put up the lights. I decorated, plugged everything in, and went off to find something to read. It wasn’t until a day later that I looked at the tree more closely. It was a balsam fir standing about 7 feet tall. I poked at the branches, crawled underneath, stepped back. To my delight and amazement, the tree is perfect. Now, this is perfection as defined by holiday trees. It stands straight, its boughs stretch out in an even conical shape, it is pleasingly proportioned from base to crown. The color is a deep, dense green. It isn’t missing branches, doesn’t have broken branches, doesn’t sag on one side. The tree is perfect in its shape and size and color. I’ve never had such a tree before.

            Usually when I chose a tree, it’s the least ugly one on the lot that will fit in the back of the car or on the roof. I don’t expect beauty. The one we got this year is perplexing, and I have spent more than an hour just looking it over or sitting and admiring it.

            This is not about trees, however. It’s about perfection.

            I don’t believe in perfection. I don’t believe in tempting a capricious fate or falling into arrogance or obsession, which is where the pursuit of perfection seems to lead. So I looked upon this tree as a freak of nature and of the holiday season (and whoever trimmed the branches—perfectly—before it reached the sales lot). It wasn’t anything to take seriously. And then we had the turkey.

            We ordered a fourteen pounder so we would have enough leftovers to make sandwiches, turkey pies, etc. I stuffed and cooked the bird and pulled it out when it hit the requisite temperature. Then came the annual ritual of getting the turkey, or at least most of it, from pot to platter. We have been doing this for years and have yet to manage it without a lot of wails of distress as half the bird, glued to the pan, refuses to budge, drumsticks fall apart, and the rack pulls off the back. With previous holiday birds in mind, I was ready to try to hold together as much of the turkey as possible. My husband armed himself with serving forks and lifted—and the entire turkey in one piece floated over to the platter—where it remained intact. No wing flopped and tore, revealing clean white meat, no skin from the back slipped and hung as the bird flew from old perch to new. Nothing came apart, ripped, fell off. Perfection—again. And there the turkey sat—in its entirety. This was weird.

            I belong to the school that believes perfection is impossible, an unattainable goal pointed to by some designed to make others miserable and unhappy with their lot, especially with their families and friends and credit card balances. Perfection is a trick of salesmen, designed to keep us forever dissatisfied with what we have or who we are. No matter how well I do something, if it’s not perfect, I have failed. That is the message of every huckster selling how-to improve yourself books, makeup kits, exercise machines, cruise vacations, a second or third car, and on down the list of items depicted in consumer catalogues cramming our mailboxes. I ignore all this as best I can.

            For me, done is better than perfect. If I have a deadline, I make sure it’s reasonable and then work as hard as I can to meet it. When I’m done I’m done. I know the temptation to hold back and try to improve it—whatever it is—to make the story or novel or grant application or whatever I’m working on just a little bit better. But I don’t give in to this. This way lies madness—or poverty. Consider the American painter Albert Ryder, whose long career as an artist ended with his death in 1917. Despite almost fifty years of painting, he left only about 150 works. At the end of his most productive period he became fixated on improving each painting, redoing the canvas again and again until the original picture was lost beneath layers of paint and new pictures. A patron who had ordered a painting had to go to Ryder’s studio and physically take the canvas off the easel to get the work he had wanted. Ryder’s striving after perfection satisfied no one.

            I don’t strive for perfection. I strive to finish something with as few flaws as possible, sending off a manuscript that I know is not perfect because it cannot be—unless it’s a fluke that has nothing to do with me. That’s the way I look at the Christmas tree and the turkey. They are flukes and will not be repeated—nor could they last. Shakespeare knew this when he opened Sonnet 15 with the lines “When I consider everything that grows/Holds in perfection but a little moment.” The tree will drop its needles, the lights and decorations will come down, and the tree will be dragged to the mulch pile out back where it will turn brown over the coming months. I will remember it fondly for its uiqueness and in a few years it will enrich the vegetable garden.

            As for the turkey. . .  If left in its perfect state, it would rot. We admired it for a few seconds, marveling at its intactness, and that’s about all you can do with something that’s perfect. So, we admired it, then set about carving it. Somerset Maugham said, “Perfection has one grave defect: it is apt to be dull.” In this instance he was only partly right. It was delicious. You might almost say it was perfection.

Friday, December 11, 2009


During a recent discussion with friends on the possibility of a library panel on self-publishing, I was explaining the requirements for joining various writers’ groups—the rules for the Authors Guild, the Writers Union, and Mystery Writers of America are all different. This came up because MWA had just published their list of acceptable publishers and the criteria by which they are evaluated. We had just been through the debacle of Harlequin’s new foray into self-publishing/vanity publishing, and I was explaining in detail why Harlequin had been dropped and why Level Best Books, of which I am an editor, qualified.

            This is the kind of arcana that writers love, mystery writers especially—the minimum advance, minimum print run, number of titles published, number of years between books, number of reviews and from which publications—we’re not the least bit coy about talking about the financial side of our work, perhaps because for most of us it’s pretty dismal. Samuel Johnson would find no blockheads in our crowd, though he’d find plenty of poor souls.

            When the subject turns to self-publishing, writers with traditional publishers (the ones who pay and produce) cringe or wince or fall silent. We have an uneasy relationship with the self-publishing concept and no reason seems adequate. We trust the editors to vet a manuscript and as writers we want that sign of approval. Someone thinks well enough of what we have written to pay real money for it. Someone else is going to do some of the hard work—edit, design, print, and distribute the thing. Reviewers—not relatives or friends but people we don’t even know—are going to take us seriously (the one dream all writers have in common) and read the book. Self-publishing suggests the writer couldn’t find a publisher, or doesn’t have faith in his or her work to try to find one. The tacit judgment is that real writers find publishers.

            I’ve had all these feelings and I recognize them as the contemporary brainwashing. Some of my fellow writers have self-published beautiful books of fiction and poetry, as well done as any from Houghton Mifflin or Random House.

            But lately I’ve been wondering about how bizarre this standard can seem.

            Several times a year I come across a new local musician who has put out a CD. He or she has chosen the songs and backup musicians, and used a local recording studio. She pays for all of this and hopes to get it back by selling the CD and, with luck, getting attention from radio stations and perhaps a bigger music producer. Now, I know absolutely nothing about the music business, but I pick up these CDs and marvel that any musician can pull together the cash, make a CD and sell it, and no one in the music industry thinks any less of the product because the musician took the initiative to produce it on his or her own. Other musicians pick up the CDs, listen to them, and react to the music, not the manner of production. Why do writers face a host of gatekeepers (publishers, reviewers, bookstores, readers) and musicians face none (except money and access to a recording studio)? Why are writers judged by how their work is produced, and musicians are not?

            I don’t know the answer, but I suppose the real question is whether or not writing will go the way of music. Will writers in a few years publish their own books with no stigma attached to the work for its being self-published, and flog their books just as musicians push their CDs at performances? Will publishers become nothing more than providers of printing services? The world of writing is changing so rapidly that anything seems possible.  But a world without gatekeepers in publishing will be really strange. Writers will have to learn to do the work of editors and designers. And readers will be left to vet books on their own—after they’ve paid for them.