Right Imperfection

A human being in action can­not rep­re­sent per­fec­tion. You always rep­re­sent one side of a dual­i­ty that is itself per­fec­tion. The moment you take action, you are imper­fect: you have decid­ed to act that way instead of that oth­er way. That’s why peo­ple who think they are per­fect are so ridicu­lous. They’re in a bad posi­tion with respect to them­selves.”Joseph Camp­bell

"Don't be afraid of perfection, you will never reach it...."
          - Salvador Dali
Sal­vador Dali, 1904–1989

In my pre­vi­ous post (Cake­walk Into Town? 1.8.19) I spoke of my own chal­lenge in craft­ing the things I write, of often “pick­ing through the weeds for the right word, the only word in the entire Eng­lish lan­guage that will do at the giv­en moment.” Now I want to make the dis­tinc­tion between the right word and the per­fect word. The for­mer is a some­times illu­sive dia­mond buried in the under­growth. The lat­ter doesn’t exist.

Writ­ing is an activ­i­ty that requires con­tin­u­ous choice-mak­ing. Every sen­tence is one par­tic­u­lar way of con­struct­ing a state­ment, cho­sen from a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of pos­si­ble sim­i­lar sen­tences with var­i­ous con­fig­u­ra­tions, styles, tones, etc. Each word is a choice of this one as opposed to that one. Some­times that one would be suit­able, but this one is more right because its deno­ta­tion, or dic­tio­nary mean­ing, cor­re­sponds more pre­cise­ly to what I want to con­vey, or that one has unwant­ed con­no­ta­tions or per­haps a broad­er deno­ta­tion more eas­i­ly mis­in­ter­pret­ed, or per­haps this one just sounds bet­ter in the giv­en con­text. We choose our words for all sorts of rea­sons.

"Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words."
                         - Mark Twain

As for per­fec­tion, fuhgetaboutit! Sure, in a spir­i­tu­al sense we can say “it’s all per­fect,” but I’m talk­ing about Joseph Campbell’s feet-on-the-ground per­spec­tive (or in this con­text, pen-to-paper) regard­ing the work of being human. Lan­guage is an inher­ent human tool, inher­ent­ly lim­it­ing. That’s what it is designed to do: lim­it, shape, define, dis­tin­guish, cir­cum­scribe, order our chaot­ic expe­ri­ence of this mate­r­i­al world based on dual­i­ty. As soon as I name some­thing, I lim­it it. That’s the point. It is no longer per­fect, in a non-dual­is­tic sense (it is some­thing, not noth­ing), but now I can deal with it.

So, per­haps I could say that my pick­ing through the lin­guis­tic weeds for the best word is a quest for right imper­fec­tion.

Or maybe, as not­ed in cer­tain East­ern philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tions, it real­ly is all about the process, not the goal. The juice is in the doing more than in the get­ting it done. The search for just the right word usu­al­ly helps me toward find­ing out what it is that I’m real­ly try­ing to say. It can be a cat­a­lyst for self-dis­cov­ery.

1 thought on “Right Imperfection”

  1. […] Stafford’s insight is that writ­ing is a process through which a writer dis­cov­ers the atten­dant inspi­ra­tion. In oth­er words, you must be knock­ing at the Muse’s door before she’ll let you in – some­times knock­ing and knock­ing and knock­ing. Sure, ideas come to us seem­ing­ly unbid­den in the show­er, while dri­ving, or when­ev­er – Aha! Inspi­ra­tion! – but turn­ing that insight or vision into a piece of writ­ing that cap­tures its essence in a pub­licly com­mu­ni­ca­ble way is inevitably the result of writ­ing and writ­ing and writ­ing until you get it right, or at least as right as you can get it (see my pre­vi­ous post, Right Imper­fec­tion). […]

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