Striving for Imperfection

writing_viaGeneWilburnWhen I was a young writer, I saw the written word as carefully crafted and immaculate. Writing was the transfer of knowledge from the expert to me, and I believed my own writing had to achieve that same ideal. To be a writer, I had to stand behind the lectern of perfection and enlighten my audience with flawless ideas—but such writing always eluded me. I fell repeatedly, inevitably short of my impossible ideal.

Such was to be expected. As my writing grew, I began to do the unthinkable—to approach the writing of others with the critique of an equal rather than to credulity of an acolyte. I began to realize that other writers, even great writers, were falling just as short as I was. I began to wonder whether I had mistaken the role of writing.

As a writer of some experience, the flaws my old view are now fully exposed. Writing, I now know, is not about the transfer of perfect knowledge from experts to novices—rather, as Ken Bruffee suggested, it is about the conversation of equals. Writing is not a record of perfect ideas; instead it is a reciprocal dialogue where ideas are tested and refined. Thus all writing becomes a draft, eternally unfinished and eternally revised.

For some, the knowledge that writing can never be finished is a curse and a weight and a frustration besides. But that is judging new knowledge with the same old idea. For my part, I find this other view of writing an exhilarating solace. There is no end to the work of writing, but I now know that an end is not the goal. To be a writer is to be a student as much as a teacher, to engage in dialogue as much as monologue, and to strive not for dead certainty but for the eternal imperfection of a living idea.

I no longer worry whether my writing is perfectly expressed or perfectly formed. Instead, I ask myself about the soundness of my ideas. Rather than bolstering the correctness of my words I investigate the ways I might be wrong. I try now to state my thoughts in ways that will spark the thoughts of others. Rather than toil over draft after draft in solitude, I happily share my raw, unpolished work for feedback. Instead of focusing on perfection, I focus on the value of revision.

And, as I revise my writing, so, too, do I revise my ideas. The exercise of writing has become, for me, and exercise in deliberation. Expressing my views to others is how I question and refine those views, how I solicit new ideas, and how I pursue a deeper understanding of the world around me.

Writing is still communication—that has not changed. The change, rather, is my relationship with the audience. They are no longer sitting silent in the darkness of the auditorium; they are leaning in around the table, eager to contribute. And I am eager to listen.

(A shorter version of this piece appeared in the August 10th VWC newsletter.)

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