Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

What’s So Great About Perfect?

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 22, 2014

I was watching a documentary about Lindsey Vonn, the champion ski racer, and she said something really interesting (I’m paraphrasing):

Lindsey Vonn from the Epix documentary, "In The Moment"

The fastest runs are never the perfect ones. Perfect runs are always slow.

My friend Christy is a downhill racer herself. I asked her about this. She said,

That’s absolutely true. In the runs that are your fastest, you get past the point of control. You’re reacting to the hill in the moment. Maybe a bump throws you off and as you try to recover you find you’re taking a line that you never took before and somehow that line is faster. Perfect is the enemy of fast.

This is true about writing or any form of art. Was Huckleberry Finn perfect? Homer’s Odyssey wasn’t. The Bible is as imperfect as it gets. The Sistine Chapel? The Parthenon? Anything by Van Gogh?

If you’re a reader of this blog, I know you’ve had the following experience:

You hit a hot streak at the keyboard. A thousand words come pouring out, two thousand, three—without effort, without thought. You read them over the next day and you say to yourself, “Wow, where did that come from?”

Then you try to “clean it up.” What happens? The magic dissolves beneath your fingertips.

You have to make yourself stop. Better to go with something that’s alive than to refine it and correct it to death.

In the documentary, they show Lindsey Vonn’s gold medal run at the Olympics. I don’t know anything about ski racing, so forgive me if I’m seeing this wrong. But Ms. Vonn was going so fast she was practically off the course half the time. She had no fear. She was strong as a horse. She was flat-out flying.

Speed works in writing too. I’m trying to do it right now in this sentence. Not so much typing fast or spewing your guts without thinking as keeping moving, not looking back, not looking down, searching always for the line (in the skiing sense) that gets you down the hill faster.

The other big moment in the Lindsey Vonn documentary was a colossal crash that she took. You see her lose her balance at what, ninety miles an hour? She goes down like a bomb, her legs do a split thirty degrees past the human maximum, her head inside her helmet slams into the hill and then she’s on her back, limp as a doll, still doing eighty. She said, “I learned more from that fall than anything. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Why? Because she didn’t die. She went over the edge and it didn’t kill her. She was back on the mountain the next morning.

Writing is not the same as downhill racing. You don’t break your legs, you don’t snap your spine. But you need the same kind of recklessness plunging down that expanse of white.

The pursuit of perfect is Resistance. We’re coloring within the lines so the teacher won’t yell at us.

But the hill doesn’t want perfect. It wants fast.

In the documentary, Lindsey Vonn is eating breakfast. Hard-boiled eggs. She’s peeling ’em one after the other, tossing the yolks aside, shoveling egg-white after egg-white into her face while the shells pile up on the kitchen counter. 

That’s it.

That’s how you do it.

Lindsey’s workouts, the docu said, are six hours a day, six days a week. Three on the bike, two with weights in the gym, I forget what the other hour was.

The difference between the way a woman skis and the way a man skis is the men have so much more strength. I want to ski like a man.

That comment is not about gender. It’s about speed. If aliens from Jupiter could ski faster than men, Lindsey would say, “I want to ski like an alien from Jupiter.”

The great champions are not looking for perfection. They’re looking for fast.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

23 Responses to “What’s So Great About Perfect?”

  1. BLP
    January 22, 2014 at 1:41 am

    “The enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan.”
    ― Carl von Clausewitz

  2. Mary
    January 22, 2014 at 5:48 am

    Here is a quote I keep at my writing table:

    “Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything.”
    —-Eugene Delacroix

  3. Name
    January 22, 2014 at 6:30 am

    Someone said “all writing is rewriting”, so get it down fast.

    At first glance, I thought the pic was of Sharon Stone from Total Recall.

  4. January 22, 2014 at 6:50 am

    There’s a balance between speed and control, isn’t there? Go too fast, and all you’ve got is a mess of splotches on the page, ink blots to baffle Rorschach. Have too much control, and not much comes out, and what does is constipation of the mind.

    Being finite we must be imperfect. Artists try to be perfectly imperfect (not sure what imperfectly perfect looks like, but it’s got to be in there somewhere): get the character flaws, the poetic line’s off-syllable, etc., to reveal and revel.

    Thanks, as always.

  5. Kent Faver
    January 22, 2014 at 6:50 am

    The real question is – how do you get this stuff down in the shower when it strikes you? Someone recently said they keep markers in the shower and write on the wall I suppose.

    Sometimes fast strikes me when I’m not sitting at the writing space.

    • Mary
      January 22, 2014 at 7:22 am

      Kent, check out Aqua Notes Waterproof Pad on Amazon – eight bucks.

      • Sonja
        January 22, 2014 at 10:50 am

        Oh, that’s funny! Of course, they make “water markers”! Too much. : )

  6. January 22, 2014 at 6:58 am

    I like your speed analogy. The beauty of writing fast is allowing yourself to get immersed in the flow. Sometimes it can be like an out of body experience. You don’t even realize you’re in in until you’re done. And then you realize what you wrote wasn’t a calculated prompt from your outline, but truly divine inspiration. It can be exhilarating.

  7. Jeanette
    January 22, 2014 at 7:27 am

    There have been many times when I sit and just words flow, I have no direction, it just comes out. It may be a few lines or an entire page. And when it is done, it is done. I have been stuck on the concept of taking an outline, writing within those titles and then putting it together in a book. Stuck for years, almost a decade now. Just this past month, decided to just write random pages and when they are done, they are done. Later to put into a book that will reflect my thoughts on this life. I have noticed that when I try to return and ‘others’ would say, tell me more here or fix this or clean it up, even to alter just one word would take away the collective of the story written. I just cannot do it. I too have written things many years ago and when I come across them, I usually wonder where I found that article, not realizing it was all my words. Thank you for freeing up my ‘perfect’ requirement that I have placed on myself or maybe believed that it was what was required of me by others and their peer pressure. Thank you. Off to a page of randomness that will be what ‘is’ for me today.

  8. January 22, 2014 at 10:17 am

    “But the hill doesn’t want perfect. It wants fast.”
    As a blogger, some of my best posts have been ones I wrote really fast…little editing–maybe my very best. As a perfectionist-by-nature, I like to re-do, and re-do, but then something gets lost. Maybe it’s sort of like playing live in a band verses making a record in a recording studio. You lose that immediacy in a recording studio. But, it’s all good. The point is to just keep writing.

  9. January 22, 2014 at 10:38 am

    I’m just trying to re-implement Rachel Aaron’s ‘2000 to 10,000: How to write faster…’ book because, well, the time has come.

    I’m a careful writer, but the time has come to toss care to the proverbial winds. I know what I’m doing – I just have to stop being afraid of the mountain.

    I was always afraid to fall, so never became a very good skier. Control, control – fear of speed, fear of not being able to stop. Which is silly, in a way, because the mountain slope always ends at the lodge. Maybe I can stop doing it in my writing – where I can fail, but won’t break any bones. Ego, maybe, but not bones.

    Thanks for the very timely tip.

  10. Fernanda
    January 22, 2014 at 10:48 am

    Thank you for those thoughts. Love your books, by the way, specially The War of Art.

    But I find it a bit wrong to put Perfection and Speed at the same level, and furthermore as opposites.

    Einstein had a moment of “over the edge” when he saw (what became after) the Theory of Relativity. It was urgent when it appeared, it came with the urgency of all great things, for the opening of future that vision would mean; a change of history in terms of Science. But it could never had come if he was not looking for Perfection. He didn’t want new relations to things he already knew, he wanted something new, and he found it. If it’s not pretentious of me to speak for him, wouldn’t that vision be Perfection itself? Lots of scientists pass by everyday, but only him and a few others changed things. And it’s fast. Or, maybe, out of time.

    By this thought, Perfection could be applied to fast or slow, depends on the kind of art, it’s only a manner. Maybe what you call Perfection is “Perfectionism”, in its neurotic search of perfect details. So the problem is neurosis, not Perfection. Neurosis is fast but it doesn’t bring any great result, only loss of hair. But it doesn’t mean that doing things fast cannot get quality… The thing is that if we change names (Perfection x neurosis), we’ll tend to stop looking for getting the best results we can, and always be middling.

    I think Perfection is in the eye, on the focus. If Perfection is the goal, it brings a need so urgent that you can’t wait. Not so much in terms of getting “things” perfect, but to see yourself go further, get over Resistance. And you remember life’s short. So run!

  11. January 22, 2014 at 10:56 am

    “The great champions are not looking for perfection. They’re looking for fast.” Exactly Steve! Because fast=best in downhill skiing.

    Perfection is not the enemy of the good. The best is the enemy; it defeats the merely good every single time. http://bit.ly/1fcrgkU

  12. January 22, 2014 at 11:44 am

    I agree with the concept of writing fast. I can outdistance the inner editor the faster I write, trusting the words will come. My first drafts are alive and interesting…but not publishable.

    But the rewrite…ye gads. That’s where I kill the thing. I edit the life out of it. You’re so right!

    So how do you suggest handling rewrites?

  13. January 22, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    She didn’t die.

    I will tattoo that on my arm.
    “She didn’t die.”

    “Sticks and stones will break my bones and names will never hurt me.”
    If someone doesn’t like what I write or paint, I will get back up and ski the next day.

    Working on real, and not on perfect.

    Sincerely,
    Pamela and Pooh

  14. January 23, 2014 at 12:51 am

    “The pursuit of perfect is Resistance.”
    Thank you for that :-)

  15. January 23, 2014 at 6:29 am

    An Olympic Games offers so many lessons about high performance and overcoming. My Olympic sport is the summer version of downhill skiing – whitewater canoe slalom. I gravitated towards the spirit of the post very quickly.
    I would add one other interesting element about sports like whitewater and downhill skiing. You don’t get call time out when things are not going well. You move from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C quickly or beyond not performing well, you get hurt.
    So go fast AND adapt quickly :-)

  16. January 23, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Great post, Steven! I know you like military history, so I’ll use the example of the Germans vs the Soviets in World War Two: the Germans had the finest engineered, state-of-the-art tank in the Tiger. But they were so over-engineered they barely turned out a thousand for the entire war. The Germans just could NOT let go of perfection in engineering. The Soviets, in contrast, started churning out the T-34, a mass produced “just get it done” tank, and started churning out a thousand a MONTH. History tells us which prevailed. Or as Stalin was supposed to have said, “Quantity has a quality all its own.”

  17. Marcy McKay
    January 23, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    The line I needed to hear the most was, “The pursuit of perfect is Resistance.” Amen, brother. Amen.

  18. January 24, 2014 at 8:39 am

    Steve, you did it again! Gave me those little bumps on my forearm…goosebumps. I love this post and will be sharing it..nay, shoving it – down the throats of my students. I’m sure at this point they think I’m shilling for you, getting huge kickbacks from promoting your books and blog. LOL. Excellent stuff, even written at 90 miles an hour – a real gem. Thanks!

  19. Beth
    January 27, 2014 at 9:29 am

    Apparently I’m headed over the edge–my computer has lost my entire work-in-progress stored on Scrivener–the program is just gone. No idea why. This should be interesting…

  20. January 27, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Awesome stuff. Thanks, Steve. Puts me in the mood to re-watch this old Under Armour ad featuring Lindsey Vonn in action:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wkt0Q6p33fo&feature=player_embedded#at=22

  21. January 27, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    We could aim for ‘less than perfect’ – i.e., ‘good enough’.

    Seth Godin advises us to aim for ‘good enough’:
    The question is: when is it good enough?

    Good enough, for those that seek perfection, is what we call it when it’s sufficient to surpass the standards we’ve set. Anything beyond good enough is called stalling and a waste of time.

    Seth Godin’s blog post:
    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/06/how-do-you-know-when-its-done.html