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Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 3): The Importance of Imperfection

Missed Part 2? Read it here.

“The Importance of Imperfection”

So, let’s take a hypothetical situation here. Let’s pretend we’ve written something stupid, incoherent, and laughable. But let’s also pretend that we wrote it for fun. Let’s pretend we wrote it knowing it would be stupid, incoherent, and laughable. Should we present it to the public?

I’ve been part of two camps when it comes to authorship: professionalism and completionism. With professionalism, we acknowledge that we have a goal to produce quality work for a quality customer. If the work we produce falls apart, injures the end user, or sows the seeds of discord, we probably don’t want to share it with the public, not unless we’re evil supervillains bent on taking over the world. Doing so could damage our brands. However, with completionism, if we have the obsessive-compulsive need to provide everything we’ve produced to satisfy those obsessive-compulsive collectors who wish to acquire our entire inventory of products, past, present, future, forgotten, conceptual, and should’ve-been-destroyed, then it might make sense to share it all with the public, warts included, even if presenting ugly work will still, inevitably, damage our brands. I can sometimes justify leaning on both, as professionalism will keep people coming back for more while completionism will give true fans a chance to see a career charted, from terrible failures to resounding successes, and feel as though they are part of the author’s journey toward greatness. We all want to be a part of something great, don’t we? But should there be a choice between professionalism and completionism? Can both coexist?

In either case, we have to acknowledge that genius is rare, crap is inevitable, and neither should end a person’s career before it begins. Consider this: The original draft of To Kill a Mockingbird was probably decent but lackluster. Harper Lee had time to refine it, of course, and refine it she did. She refined it so well that high schools now teach it as important literature. But, one of the reasons she could refine it so well was because she had actually written Go Set a Watchman first, which wasn’t so well-refined, and her editor knew that and convinced her to write a prequel and release that book instead. Her experience with the first book not only helped her to figure out her story and characters, but it allowed her to write a masterwork for her second.

But, was writing and releasing a perfect novel on her second attempt really the best thing for Harper Lee, or for her readers for that matter? For over five decades, To Kill a Mockingbird was the only Harper Lee book we knew. Go Set a Watchman is older than To Kill a Mockingbird, yet Harper Lee was wise to hold it back for as long as she had, according to her editor, her sister, and probably many others, for it does not measure up to the same quality standard as To Kill a Mockingbird, not then, and not now, and to release anything of lower quality would have inevitably driven down her author stock. If we consider her legacy, however, we could argue that maybe she should have released it sooner anyway, perfect or not.

Question is, why could we argue something so preposterous? If releasing Go Set a Watchman could damage her perfect record, then why bother releasing it at all, decades ago, or even today? Didn’t we ruin Jurassic Park with all of those terrible sequels? Isn’t Star Wars tainted by those awful prequels? If we had left Indiana Jones with just three movies, couldn’t we say, forever, that it’s the perfect adventure series, and not one where the hero can survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator?

Maybe the release of Go Set a Watchman in the 1950s or 1960s would’ve damaged her perfect record. But it also could’ve led her to writing and releasing a third book, a fourth, and so on, furthering her career, as now the high standard set by To Kill a Mockingbird has been challenged and ultimately failed to match, and thus the need to remain perfect is diminished. Maybe by failing at sustained perfection, the world could’ve been blessed with a vast library of Harper Lee books to follow, ranging across decades of southern life, with some being lackluster, but others being masterworks. If only she (and her editor) had just taken the chance to release Go Set a Watchman to the public decades sooner, we might’ve seen a brilliant writer fulfill her brilliant destiny of having a robust range of brilliant titles in her bibliography instead of just two (one perfect and one flawed).

We want to produce perfection, and we want to make sure that perfection is all the world will see from us. But, if we wait on perfection, we will never build our careers. Likewise, we potentially shoot ourselves in the foot if we achieve perfection anyway. Think about that. I’ve been saying for the last year or so, “We can’t improve on perfection. Any change we make to it will just make it worse.” If we write the perfect book, we damn ourselves to that perfection, and we can never write anything else ever again, lest we ruin our perfect reputations. So, maybe it’s better that we tell ourselves it’s okay to write crap, and that it’s okay to release it to the public whenever it reaches a stage just above crap. Maybe we’ll give ourselves a chance to succeed with that attitude.

If the masters want to stall their careers because they’ve achieved self-actualization, that’s their business. I like writing, and I like sharing it with anyone who identifies as a fan, so I’ll keep producing, even if it’s simply enjoyable and less than life-changing. Doesn’t mean I won’t try to write the stuff that impacts the world. Just means I’ll probably follow it up with something fun. After all, Nicholas Cage may have won the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, but it didn’t stop him from following it with Con Air and Face/Off. And let’s be honest, the world is better off for that decision.

Next Week: “The Importance of Managing Fun

Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 1): The Importance of Literature

“The Importance of Literature”

Writing has been my passion since I was 13 years old, and I started not because I had some lofty ambition to become a best-seller, or even publicly known, but because I had an active imagination that was best expressed in words. I didn’t know how to make video games at the time, and my toys, which I was outgrowing, did not inherently create the explosions I had seen in my mind, or any “automated,” interactive, constructive, or destructive scenarios I wanted to play out. Because I wanted to tell stories somehow, I figured writing was the best way to go, if not the only way.

And the crazy thing about that is, at the time, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading.

Whether it deserves it or not, I blame the education system for the latter issue. In junior high and high school (actually, my junior high had become an official middle school the year I reached eighth grade, so I’ll say middle school and high school for this point), I was forced to read books that were written decades earlier, addressing topics I had neither knowledge nor interest in learning about. One in particular, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, I had to read twice, once in eighth grade and once in ninth. I didn’t enjoy it either time, and was notably upset when I was told to read it a second time. In tenth grade, I had to read Nectar in the Sieve, which bored me so much that I never finished it, even for a grade. Granted, I’m sure I would appreciate both books more today, now that I’m a 40-year-old adult who doesn’t need explosions to enjoy a story (even though it still helps), but I still would never automatically gravitate toward either.

The stuff I read in high school that I could read again and enjoy today include The Great Gatsby, which I believe is the book I’ve read more times than any other and will probably read again because it’s so freaking good (I honestly need to read all of Fitzgerald’s works to truly appreciate his genius, I think), The Catcher in the Rye, which was my favorite at the time, but has since been supplanted by Mr. Gatsby and friends, and To Kill a Mockingbird, which was just a brilliant piece of writing through and through. Each of these books had an important place in 1990s high school literature, establishing a foundation for society and whatnot, but none of them had ever turned me on to reading.

It took Alex Garland’s The Beach to get me to see that novels could actually take place in the modern world, present universal truths relevant to today and tomorrow, and still be interesting, and ultimately to get me interested in reading more books.

It was not an easy thing for me to become a regular reader of present-day fiction. It took me months to finish reading The Beach, and the only reason I bought it was because I had flipped to a page where the main character was talking about Super Mario Bros. I was impressed that someone had thought to bring pop culture into fiction, and I wanted to support any book that considered me its ideal reader. Kamala Markandaya, the author of Nectar in a Sieve, clearly wasn’t aiming to capture a 15-year-old boy who still watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Saturday mornings. I’m sure Markandaya had a compulsive urge to write the novel and knew that there was an audience for it. Maybe it was unfortunate that some educator believed I was that ideal audience. But, for as much as I appreciated the effort, The Beach didn’t captivate me the way it probably wanted to. Well, it did at first, so that’s not a fair statement. But it lost momentum for me when I realized I was basically reading Lord of the Flies (another classic) in a modern skin, which ultimately didn’t appeal to me. If I were to read it again today, now that I’ve built up my reading experience to sustainable levels, I might enjoy it much more. Might.

However, what it did accomplish initially was to break the wall that Nectar in a Sieve and required reading like it forced before me. Even though it wasn’t the book that turned me into an avid reader, it did give me cause to explore other titles. I think it was Tunnel Vision by Keith Lowe that finally got me to take reading seriously (even though MTV published that book, and I don’t believe it was ever one to be taken seriously), and that encouraged me to look up the author who wrote the book that the John Cusack movie I had seen in college a couple of years earlier was based on, even though I didn’t like the movie as much as I’d wanted to but was curious about the book that inspired it, since I knew it was based on a book, and that, of course, was High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, who became one of my favorite authors, as About a Boy is in my Top 10 favorite novels of all time (up there with The Great Gatsby and Syrup by Max Barry), and definitely the right one to discover, even if his latest, Funny Girl, isn’t particularly great.

I write all of this to express the importance of not just of reading, but to love it, and to find works that allow you to love it. By finding and reading books we love, we can develop a healthy reading habit that can carry us through the rest of our lives, and teach us things along the way. Right now, I’m reading The Martian by Andy Weir, and even though I lost my taste for science fiction back in the ‘90s, this book reminds me why I don’t have to eschew it completely. It’s so good, and I daresay its goodness has much to do with its relevance to what I know and understand and enjoy. Ready Player One is another one that straddles the lines of sci-fi, pop culture, adventure, and pure entertainment, a book that I absolutely loved and absolutely would’ve missed out on had I not refined my taste for reading years earlier, in spite of the damage that high school literature had caused me during my formative reading years.

That said, the books that reached me did so because they touched on a point of personal identity that other books like The Good Earth could not do. This isn’t to say that I think The Good Earth is a bad book. Not at all. It’s a classic for a reason. I’d even consider it a valuable resource if I ever wanted to familiarize myself with early 20th century Chinese dynasties. But, as of now, as it was back in high school, it’s not my thing.

However, families are relevant, and family sagas are universal, and that’s what The Good Earth ultimately is written to be, so there’s probably much to glean from it that’s relevant to all of us, and I just didn’t know how to appreciate that as a 14-year-old who looked forward to watching whatever was popular on Saturday mornings back in 1990.

I started writing my first major story, City Walker, the same school year I had to read The Good Earth the first time (1989-1990). It was an action-packed random events story about a man looking for a television repair shop. If I had been well-read, even as a 13-year-old, I would’ve realized that I was writing a meandering story that had no sustainable plot line. But I was watching a lot of television in those days, and I knew what made a story worthwhile, even then, and I knew as I was writing it that what I was writing wasn’t anything particularly good. Even when my English teacher offered to read it whenever I’d finish it, I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t show her. Thinking about it all these years later, knowing all that I know about story now, I can safely say that what I had written over the course of two years was not a story, but a series of pointless events. But they were pointless events that allowed me to get my worst ideas out of my system. They also allowed me to develop a cast of characters that I actually did like, and wanted to see more of. This lead to me writing an updated version of the story as a screenplay a few years later. It still wasn’t good, but it was better.

Literature didn’t teach me structure, not as I understand it today, but it did teach me value. I knew from the books I didn’t enjoy that the story I was having fun writing was not great. Perhaps that slaps the face of anyone who has ever said, “If it feels good, do it.” No, you really shouldn’t, not unless you’re going to learn from it, and sometimes what you’ll learn is that you shouldn’t do it, even if it feels good. I didn’t enjoy The Good Earth when I read it, and come to think of it, I don’t recall enjoying The Great Gatsby the first time I read it, either (the fact that I love it now tells me that I should reacquaint myself with the classics, now that I’m at a point in my life that I can appreciate them). But it did teach me the idea of scope. It did teach me that actions have consequence, and that even characters we don’t like can still be memorable. I don’t remember a lot of the things I’ve read in my life, but I can still remember vividly how poorly Wang Lung treats his wife, and how creepy it is that the grandfather wants the warmth of the baby to help him sleep at night, and how systematic O-Lan’s birthing ends up being each time her water breaks and she heads into the bathroom to deal with it. Oh, and the fact that I remember these characters’ names also says something about it. I didn’t like it. But I sure as heck remember it. I vaguely remember the characters in Anonymous Rex by Eric Garcia (they’re dinosaur detectives disguised as human, if I recall), but I don’t remember much about the story itself. Bits and pieces. Of course, weirdly, I enjoyed Anonymous Rex far more than I did The Good Earth. I wonder if I did simply because it was unconventional and not at all the kind of book my Honors English teacher would’ve assigned me in eleventh grade English. Or, maybe because I didn’t have to read it, I decided that I wanted to read it. All a bunch of maybes.

Ultimately, if we want to write, we need to read. In the years I wrote stories without reading other people’s published stories, I had a lot of fun, but I also wrote a lot of crap and didn’t learn anything. These days, I learn plenty. More on that next time.

Next Week: “The Importance of Experimentation and Ignoring Fear