It Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect

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Not a review this week, but some encouragement for any aspiring writers-

         In some form or another, by the time I could comprehend sentences, I’d overheard or been the recipient of the phrase, “it doesn’t have to be perfect.” Especially when it came to writing fiction, I was warned by other writers about the snare of perfection. Well of course it doesn’t, I thought. It’s not like I’m Midas and every time I touch the keyboard I expect pure gold sentences to string themselves across the page. If anyone thinks that, he or she is clearly delusional. The problem with delusion is that if you are, you don’t know it. When the depths of my delusion were brought to my attention, I was able to come to a new understanding of just what was meant by not having to be perfect, how it changed my writing life, and how it could change other writers’ perspectives as well.

A few years ago, during an afternoon lull in the workday I lounged at the computer tinkering with one of my stories. Banks are notoriously slow during summer months, and staying awake is important. A coworker, Elizabeth, noticed my tapping. She leaned back in her swivel chair to get a view of my interest. “How many stories have you written?” she asked.

My mind jumped to the numbers game: Written, like, ever? Abruptly, I wanted to be Midas. I wanted to parade my myriad perfections across her desk in pompous fanfare. However, I was simultaneously seized by profound fear that nothing I’d written would ever be good enough; it would never be perfect. I inhaled a deep breath of the office air conditioning. “Well,” I said, “do you mean how many have I completed or how many am I working on?”

Working on, in that context, was a clever euphemism for started and got about a page in before abandoning. But she didn’t need to know that. If she’d said, completed I probably would have lied anyway. Still, it was a relief when she said “working on.”

“Gosh, I don’t know.” A pregnant pause was needed to illustrate the immense calculation of fabulous stories my pen had etched. “Probably seventy-five to a hundred.”

“Wow,” she said. “That’s a lot. I wish I could do that, but nothing I’d write would be any good.”

I knew exactly how she felt. I turned away and began typing to make it appear that I was furiously constructing the next bestseller. Meanwhile, what I was actually doing was scrolling through a story I’d started three years previously. And after all that time, I had exactly one and a half pages completed. I’d fixed grammar and changed the characters’ names about seven times. Did that count for anything? I mumbled audibly enough for her to ascertain that the characters in my head were manifesting themselves and demanding a seven book series. “Seven is the number of perfection,” they intoned.

After lunch Elizabeth returned to her desk and said she’d love to see something that I’d written. “Maybe you can show me the one you’re working on now.”

My worst fear: someone would see my wholly imperfect writing and they would know I was a fraud. I choked on my pomposity. “Er—I don’t normally like to show anything that’s incomplete,” I told her.

“Then you’ll show me when it’s finished?”

“Definitely.”  So between fifteen years and eternity I should have it wrapped up, I could have said. I’d always enjoyed writing, but I enjoyed writing five paragraphs or a snippy zinger of dialogue and then forsaking it in the deep crypt-like recesses of file folders on my laptop. How could I show the world something so pathetic?

“I don’t know how you do it,” she said. “I’ve heard people say that sometimes we set our standards so high it actually limits us from being effective because we want everything we do to be perfect. It’s great that you don’t have that problem. You just let the words flow.”

There that word was again: perfect. Elizabeth had spoken in sincerity, but it could have as easily been satirical commentary. I examined the blinking cursor on my screen. The page was blank. Maybe I could write a poem about a blinking cursor. But I probably wouldn’t finish that either. Better yet, I could write a poem about procrastination, and it would only have a title. So post-modern! No, I was sure someone had beaten me to it. If I considered myself a writer, why didn’t I have anything to show for it? Something needed to change. But what was the problem? It was obvious. I was terrified that someone might think it wasn’t good enough. That it wasn’t perfect.

If I ever wanted to make something worthwhile out of my writer-life aspirations, I’d have to capitulate to imperfection. I turned the monitor off and began to type. If I couldn’t see the words, I wouldn’t be tempted to fix them. I resolved that if I wrote the crappiest story on earth, it was going to be the finished crappiest story on earth. No ifs, ands, or hard-drive failures.

After an hour, I’d written almost 1200 terrible words of prose and I could not have been more ecstatic. The story was finished and my understanding had changed.

To be a writer means that you write. If I continued to write daily, excusing the catastrophic mess on the page, then I was a writer and I had evidence to show for it. No where did it ever say that what I wrote had to be perfect. Heck, that’s what revision’s for.

 

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Make Room for the Future—Kind of.

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Just finished Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! It was adapted into a movie (Soylent Green) starring Hollywood’s preeminent tough guy, Charlton Heston in 1973. I’m told I should read Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” series, but alas, I’m on the standalone shtick right now.

Anyway, I write this review with relief since lately my selection of novels has been less than satisfactory. When I consider how many books there are—and how many I want to read—it’s frustrating to spend time on a story I don’t enjoy. But Make Room! has thankfully bucked that trend.

However, Make Room! isn’t so much a science fiction novel, strictly speaking, as it is a futuristic novel. Well sort of. Let me explain. The world is overpopulated to the point of suffocation. Crime and starvation are at all time highs. The population of New York City alone is over 35 million and that’s where Detective Andy Rusch is heaped with the task of handling his normal civic duties along with investigating a murder—all the while getting into a romantic tangle with the deceased’s girlfriend.

First off, as you can see from this summary, there’s very little science involved, and more of a mystery than anything else. In fact, Harrison almost exclusively avoids technology. The most advanced system I recall reading about is a television (and a tube telly, no less!) Fortunately, the eschewing of technology plays up the notion of an unsustainable infrastructure and has helped the novel age somewhat elegantly.

Where the novel falls short in its futuristic expectations is in estimating physical space, and more specifically, the square footage of planet Earth. Harrison predicts that the population of the world is over 7 billion—which it is. He also predicts that the population of the United States is 344 million—which is pretty darn close. It’s 325 million according to the last census. So while his numerical estimations were nearly prophetic, he erred in thinking the world would be jam-packed by then.

If you think I’m criticizing the novel, I’m not. I loved these inconsistencies because sometimes I think they’re a part of why I read science fiction—to see how clairvoyant the authors of yesterday were in imagine our futures. I want to be amazed by their foresight or to chuckle at their oversight. Did they foretell Ipad Tablets like the cover illustrations on Arthur C Clark’s 2001: Space Odyssey?** Or did they goof like in Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? where characters zoom around in flying cars and then answer a call by picking up the car phone still connected by a wire?

In either case, that’s what makes the reading fun. And that’s why I’m doing it. 3.5/5 stars.

 

**2001: Space Odyssey was published in 1968 if you’re curious.

2001 space.jpg

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A Non-Stop Good Time! …Until About Halfway

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One of my more recent personal reading goals is essentially to do a survey across the landscape of science-fiction to glean a baseline understanding of its historical auspices within the literary community. I’m intending to accomplish this by reading standalone novels by many of the major science fiction writers. It’s easier to read a standalone than, say, reading the first installment of a twelve book series—forming a dozen untied ends—and knowing I wont return for a few years. Plus, if I end up liking the series, it will derail my mission since those novels will get bumped to the top of the reading list.

Having said that, my family and I took our vacation last week and I brought along Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (a standalone volume). I finished the first chapter and said “Oh man, this is going to be good.” The way Aldiss set out world building immediately had me hooked. He described it much better than I will, but here’s the gist: protagonist Roy Complain, along with a few of his rowdy, rag-tag companions set out to discover what lies behind the confines of their primitive (hunter/gatherer) society. They live in an alien jungle where the vegetation grows like asparagus on steroids and these “ponics,” as they’re called, are harvested to create defenses and sustenance for his civilization’s constantly nomadic encampment. Meanwhile, there exists lore and tall tales of other species lurking within the depths of the jungle and the left behind evidence of their existence indicates (spoiler) the trappings of modern, yet extinct race. As Roy Complain and his cohorts explore deeper into the jungle, they unveil more enthralling secrets. Slowly the details are unfurling—and I’m so into this! And then, quite unexpectedly about halfway though, rats appear.

Okay, I mean, so? Not exactly a revolutionary cameo. Except that these rats are wearing armor, have a language, and are also in possession of a kind of mind hypnosis power. “Well, that’s—er—different?” I frowned. “Did Brian Aldiss just turn into Brian Jacques and I’m at Redwall now?” But swiftly my level of reading pleasure up to this point rebuked me. “No,” it said. “Trust the author. He will answer this and many other questions at the end.” So I read on. And read on. More unusual questions arose—more concern about when certain subplots would be wrapped up. Flashbacks of revelation were revealed, minor elucidation ensued but sufficient explanation had yet to be given for the truly pressing questions. And then!—It’s coming soon it has to because the pages are running out—but it’s going to be a “Wow-I-never-saw-that-coming-awesomeness” moment”—And then!—the book ended.

“But what about the rats!” I cried. Truthfully, they could have been nixed from the narrative and not have changed a whole lot. But it wasn’t just the rats. Several smaller tangents were never revisited in addition to a massive plot contradiction explicitly expressed by a character only a few pages earlier. Without going into exhaustive detail, it amounted to something akin to:

“You can’t go outside because if you do you’ll die.”

“Well I don’t want to stay in here.”

“Okay, then go outside because you won’t die.”

Sigh. I don’t think I’m being too harsh a critic because until I reached the halfway point, I was raving about it to my wife (who doesn’t read sci-fi) and even made a recommendation to someone else. But I guess you’d have to read it to know what I’m talking about. I won’t even say you shouldn’t because the first half really is that good. On a similar note, anyone want to offer me suggestions of a standalone volume that you’re confident I’ll enjoy all the way through? Leave comments! Post to Facebook! Correct my typos! Nevertheless, major props to Aldiss for his world building and intriguing story line, I’m just disappointed it didn’t carry through. 2.5/5 stars.

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