The Blissful Affliction of Writing

I miss Adrian Monk.

I used to set my schedule around Monk on Friday nights. In case you missed it, Monk was a detective series on the USA Network that let us follow the adventures of an obsessive-compulsive genius named Adrian Monk.

There was no doubt that Monk was a detective genius. He could solve crimes no one else could solve. If all the cops in San Francisco were stumped on a case, they beat a hasty trail to Monk, and he always came through. If you were a criminal and Monk was on your case, you were in deep trouble.

But the intrigue of that show was not just the crime detection that went on; it was also the strange obsessive-compulsive traits that were both a blessing and a curse to Monk. On one hand, his bizarre perfectionism enabled Monk to be the genius detective he was. He could see things and figure out things that put him in a league of his own. His perfectionism made him a world-class sleuth.

On the other hand, his perfectionist disorder made him almost impossible to live with. He was fastidious about cleanliness. He had to have everything and everyone around him neat and tidy. A crooked picture drove him crazy. He drank only one brand of bottled water. His eating habits were bizarre, to say the least. On and on the dysfunction went until Monk almost couldn’t cope in the real world.

There he was in all his glory: Adrian Monk, the genius detective who got that way by being a super-perfectionist, and Adrian Monk, the dysfunctional oddball who drove everyone around him up the walls by being a super-perfectionist. Perfectionism was his blessing, and perfectionism was his curse.

For that reason, I hereby nominate Adrian Monk as the patron saint of writers. He’s the ideal saint for all of us who put words on paper because perfectionism is both our blessing and curse too. If you ask me if a writer needs to be at least somewhat obsessive-compulsive, I would answer with an unequivocal “yes.” If you ask me if perfectionism can be a curse on writers that keeps them from even trying to ply their craft, I would answer with an unequivocal “yes” too.

Like Monk, we are both blessed and cursed by perfectionism. Consider the blessing of it first. Writers must be perfectionists because perfectionism is a direct result of caring. We want the verb to be perfectly right, the sentence to be perfectly rhythmic, the paragraph to be perfectly unified, and the book to be perfectly wonderful because we care. We care about our message. We care about our story. We care about words and the way they’re put together. A writer who is not a perfectionist is probably a writer who doesn’t care.

Contrary to medical experts, the most dangerous disease in our culture is neither cancer nor heart disease, as awful as those diseases are. The most devastating illness today is indifference. In the Middle Ages, this condition was known as “acedia,” or sloth, and it was considered by the church to be one of the seven deadly sins.

The most obvious symptom of “acedia” is a repeated shrug of the shoulders. When a person is afflicted with this condition, nothing matters. Lawns go unkempt, bread unbaked, children unloved, and poems unwritten. The mantra of those with “acedia” is the recurring line in the book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Nothing really matters, so why bother?

When sloth moves into its advanced stages, a person is powerless to do much of anything. Like a malnourished child too weak to brush the flies from her face, the person with advanced sloth is too apathetic to see wonder even in life’s finest treasures. Sunsets bring no awe, good music stirs no heartstrings, and freckle-faced little boys evoke no chuckles. The medical examiner would never officially declare it, but the person who gets to that point is dead. There is no telling how many dead people are walking the streets today.

The antidote for the disease is caring, or maybe better said, fascination. When we care about things or become fascinated with things, sloth vanishes like fog suddenly exposed to sunshine. Once we fall in love with tennis, old books, baseball cards, stamps, African violets, the Sermon on the Mount, or anything else that catches our fancy, we banish “acedia” immediately. Sloth and fascination simply cannot coexist.

This is why writers must be perfectionists. We do have some small things to care about—namely, our poem, our article, our book, our words in whatever form or fashion we put them. Slothful writers are bad writers. The only writers worth reading are the ones who are fascinated by something and want you to catch that fascination. And the only writers worth reading are the ones who will write and rewrite and rewrite again to make sure they get it as close to perfect as possible. In other words, they care enough to want to get it right. Their perfectionism rises up out of their fascination.

That’s why Jacques Barzun said, “Read and revise, reread and revise, keep reading and revising until your text seems adequate to your thought.” That’s why E. B. White said, “The best writing is rewriting.” That’s why Gustave Flaubert said, “Prose is like hair; it shines with combing.” They’re all saying basically the same thing: when it comes to your writing, be a perfectionist. And I think Monk would agree with all of them.

That’s the blessing side of perfectionism. It is a symbol of our caring, and without it we’re dead as writers.

Now for the curse. We can become such perfectionists that nothing we write is good enough. We write, rewrite, rewrite again, and end up throwing our third draft in the trash. Not good enough. Doesn’t measure up. Not in the same league with William Shakespeare, or even Margaret Atwood. If we spend enough days like that, we will eventually be defeated by our perfectionist tendencies. Who wants to spend days and days wadding up drafts and throwing them in the garbage can?

There comes a moment in every piece of writing when you have to let it go, like letting your precious child venture off to kindergarten. You’ve written it, rewritten it, polished it, and are now sick of reading it, so you let it go. You know it’s not perfect. You know if it ever gets published you’ll wish you had done a better job of editing it. But still you have to let it go.

I have written ten books and the more I read them, the worse they get. Why didn’t I develop that idea better? Why didn’t I say that better? What was I thinking when I wrote that? Why in the world would anyone want to read this drivel? Reading your stuff once it gets published is an exercise in both agony and futility.

But the alternative is worse: You never write anything because it doesn’t measure up to your own lofty standards. You claim to be a writer and want to be a writer, but you never write anything because it isn’t good enough. Given the option between writing imperfectly or not writing perfectly, I think most of us would take the former.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote,

Your day’s work might turn out to have been a mess. So what? Vonnegut said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” So go ahead and make big scrawls and mistakes. Use up lots of paper. Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here—and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.

So, perfectionist that you are, trudge on over to the computer and start flailing away. Sure, you won’t produce perfection, but you will produce. Then you’ll edit, and edit some more, and eventually you’ll send it somewhere. Probably, it will come back, and you’ll get the opportunity to edit it again. That’s the way the writing business works. It’s not always fun, and it’s not always easy, but you’re a writer, and that’s what writers do.

Judson Edwards has written ten books and numerous articles and regularly writes Sunday school curriculum. A pastor for more than thirty years, he is now a freelance writer and speaker. He and his wife, Sherry, live in San Antonio, Texas.

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Comments

  1. Rev. Pamela Moyer says:

    Fantastic article! It is the same for sermon-writing. Thank you for articulating this challenging yet fulfilling part of the written word. It is an art.

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