Creative Minds: The Necessary Perfection of Mistakes
I can’t remember exactly what trigger the realization I’d made such a colossal mistake, all I know is it hit me suddenly and it was unpleasant. I was on a hike a couple of days ago and my mind was enjoying itself for a change by leapfrogging playfully from topic to topic. Perhaps I was reviewing the piece I wrote the other day about breaking up with your friends, or maybe I was thinking about the principles of Sufism that I discussed in the article. Whatever led up to it, it suddenly dawned on me—no, it was more like a flood beam being shone directly into my eyes so intensely that it stopped me in my tracks—that I had used the wrong spelling of ‘principle’ throughout the entire article. I had used ‘principal’ instead, a stupid, basic mistake they don’t even try to trip you up with in SATs because it’s too obvious. (I’ve long had a problem with those particular homophones, and others like here/hear, but not they’re/their. It’s indiscriminate.)
I had overlooked this error despite going over the article a few times. My writing can be difficult, dense and tricky, nobody is here to proof for me, so I post a lot of stuff on this site with mistakes, I know that; I do my best to edit myself, but a lot slips through the cracks. But this particular piece garnered nine likes on Facebook in under an hour, a lot for me—I’m not exactly Dan Savage. When a piece of mine is so relatively well received, I tend to go back and revise over and over to make sure there are zero mistakes.
Still, the principal/principle switch eluded me until it floated up from my subconscious in the middle of that hike and smacked me in the face. And it wasn’t just my oversight: about four professional writers read it, but nobody brought it to my attention. One of the early readers and Facebook likers was my former partner, the author Jonathan Kemp, and we have a history of helping each other out with copyediting so he would have no problem pointing it out and helping me save face.
What interested me most once I recovered from my mini-hysterics was my hysterical reaction itself. This piece was hardly published in The New Yorker, but I was still so mortified that I stopped walking, grabbed my BlackBerry several times and glared at it like it was to blame, spun around, peppered the air with “fuck” and “shit,” then realized there were other people on the street watching this, so I looked at my BlackBerry a few more times and pushed random buttons to pretend it was some business emergency and not really my ego going down in flames.
I don’t know if this is the same for other people or just professional creatives, but adverse conditions manifest themselves as tableaus in my mind, brief flashes a few seconds long that intercut with my thought process. For instance, if I’m feeling particularly beleaguered by the normal vagaries of life, I see my arms extended on a cross and nails being driven through my wrists. In this instance, in the midst of my hike when I realize my principle mistake, my perfectionism manifested itself as the huge fire-and-brimstone demon from This Is the End with a bullwhip in his hands flogging the life out of me/my ego. I wanted to make the correction that instant, but for various reasons couldn’t on my BlackBerry and had to wait another forty-five minutes until I got to the nearest laptop. In the meantime, I vanquished the bullwhipping demon and calmed myself down by realizing I had a decent subject for an article about perfectionism, creativity and the acceptableness of mistakes.
The reason nobody picked up on the homophone problem is the eye skims over the text, particularly mine because it can be so dense and tricky, and my regular readers seem to know that getting the gist of what I’m rambling about is more important than the perfection of spelling, grammar or syntax. Like my speech patterns, my writing can be impressionistic, as often unintentionally as purposely. Did everyone understand that I meant principle instead of principal? Undoubtedly. Did the mistake change the meaning of the article? Not a jot.
What is particularly interesting is how my perfectionism manifested itself as this massive demon from a comedy movie I saw recently; I recognized it as both vicious and funny at the same time. “It’s just a fucking blog post. There are mistakes all over the net,” battled in my mind with, “What sort of a loser are you to make such a basic mistake?” I’m pleased to say the former line of thinking won and led me to write this.
What I was experiencing was actually a mild narcissistic reaction; my sense of self as a superior creative was wounded and lashed out. Even if I haven’t been in a true rage in years, I am physically big and imposing and become demonic when the ‘red mist’ descends on my mind—you’re best advised to back down if I get like that, but you’re unlikely to provoke it in the first place. It’s natural, then, that my ego manifested itself as me as a towering demon, although I hastily add that I’m not nearly as hung as the demons in This Is the End.
Perfectionism isn’t limited to narcissists, but it is a symptom of the disorder. Most narcissist-perfectionists are the opposite of me: they tend to be quiet and withdrawn; they blush easily when slighted, whereas I’m not sure I’ve ever blushed in my life. I’m also acutely aware of my flaws, whereas a true narcissist denies them and bends reality to find the person who sees him as flawed as being the flawed one (oh, there I go with that tricky thing, again).
It might be said that I bend perception to see flaws in a different way, which might be construed as narcissism, but it’s not. It’s actually the Zen/Sufi way of appreciating the world; it’s a shift in perspective more than a delusion, which is a break with generally accepted objective reality and reason rather than simply taking a healthier and more compassionate point of view.
There’s famous Zen koan in which the master declares in front of his assembled disciples, “Everything in existence is perfect, exactly the way it is intended to be,” a philosophy that would seem to have the backing of physics and mathematics. A hunchback disciple says, “But, master, look at how deformed I am.” The master replies, “You are the most perfect hunchback I have ever met.”
I often restate that line with people who express undue remorse for their actions, inactions or for who they are: “You are the most perfect [Insert Full Name] I have ever met.” It certainly helps to look at the world this way in terms of the blame game and makes it easier to forgive, which doesn’t mean to say all bad deeds should go unpunished simply because the person who perpetuated them did it because of flaws that are actually inborn and therefore perfect from this point of view—a balance must be maintained.
What criteria do we use to maintain this abstract balance that is so prone to subjectivity? First of all, we aren’t talking about flaws here, but good versus bad. In terms of a person or anything else that is created by nature, we have to maintain that it is perfect, exactly as the Zen master states. Still, just as we take precautions and protect ourselves against a natural disaster, we must do the same with people and their actions, whether they are caused by innate traits or learned behaviors. I suppose the litmus test is this: if it’s destructive, it’s a bad sort of perfection; if it’s creative it’s good.
I can look at the tree swaying in the wind outside the window right now and declare it beautiful, living poetry. If I ponder the totality of its essence for too long—from its atomic structure to the uppermost leaf reaching for the sun—words would fail me. Yet it is also bent, not all the leaves are a uniform green—indeed, some of them are dead and falling—the branches are growing willy-nilly with no guidance or uniformity. Compared to the buildings behind it, which are built to precise standards, or even the straight telephone pole that is a tree product, it is deeply flawed.
Creativity demands flaws as much as it demands trial and error, as much as it cannot aim to please everyone. What is a perfect work of art? I would say that a great piece of art can and should be the sum of its flaws as much as its perfections. We cannot have imperfection in engineering, whether it is a bridge, a plane or the software that allows me to write these words in a laptop. Even certain service industries cannot afford error, which is why ISO certifications are so prized: they bestow on us, beings that are intrinsically prone to mistakes, the systemic accuracy of machines. Those support systems must be flawless for us to progress and live the best we can as a society, but they do not apply to creativity. Perfection in the systemic sense is sociopathic, and art is the opposite of that because it is emotional, empathetic with the spirit of existence itself. We look at the tree swaying in the unpredictable, capricious wind and we perceive it as beautiful, as perfect in its flawed way, despite the fact that it is built on a rigid code, on principles of physics and mathematics that are immutable and constant.
I suppose I’m a confirmed postmodernist in the sense that I reject the notion of a pure form, of perfect detail, which doesn’t mean I abandon structure. To demand perfectionism in creativity—and in that I include all human relationships and interactions—is totalitarianism, and that would be foolish for any fine artist or writer or architect to embrace, particularly when you are working on commission and trying to find an acceptable medium and dialogue between you and those with whom you are working. There is no one sentence that is perfect and unchangeable; the forest of stories is limitless and so beautifully varied; color palettes and combinations and features and styles are endless; the arrangement of architectonic elements infinite. In the end, it’s not a question of whether you misspell a homophone in a piece that is read by a few dozen people or published in The New Yorker. It’s whether you make the creative decisions that feel right, or look right, or sound right, or are a right combination of all those things and more. And if it turns out as a piece of shit, well… it’ll still be the most perfect piece of shit I’ve ever seen.