Tag Archives: the perfect is the enemy of the good

Metaphor Monday: Splinters


Over the long weekend, I built this kitchen bench.

Our old kitchen was enormous, you see. Cavernous, you might even say. And while our current kitchen is by no means tiny, it’s also definitely and noticeably smaller than our old digs. So we’ve been economizing the space in as many ways as we can: shelves over the backs of the doors. Stuff stackers on the tops of the cabinets. Racks and organizers galore. (Minimize, I hear you say. Pshaw, I say. This is America.)

Then, my wife had a great idea. We have this recessed window area in the kitchen. Why not put a thing in there that can hold other things and not look like just a pile of stuff?

Yeah, that’s cool, I think. I love a little weekend project.

So I build this bench. Heavy as a bale of bricks and long enough to store a dead body or two. And it fits pretty snugly under the window. It blends in well enough with the space, in fact, that despite having some family over during the weekend, nobody noticed it squatting there, disguising the economy bundles of water and diet soda we picked up in advance of the storm.

Thing is, it took me most of the morning to build it; a good three or so hours, to say nothing of the trip to Home Depot for lumber and screws and so forth. Lots of frustrating work by myself in the garage, balancing things on edges, leveling them off, toiling to make sure the thing came out even in my modest home-fix-it setup.

It’s a weird thing, building stuff. I know enough about construction to get myself into trouble, as they say; I know a little bit about carpentry principles and if I really work at it I can build stuff that’s sturdy, but forget about making it look particularly presentable from any closer than fifty feet away. (Incidentally, this makes me fantastic at building things for the stage, which — surprise! — is a not insignificant portion of my job.) And because I’m decent but not great at building things, I have this love/hate relationship with building things. I love it — for a while. When it comes to building the thing and making it structurally and functionally sound, boy howdy, I can jump in with both feet and work ’round the clock without even really noticing the passage of time. But once I reach the limits of my expertise? Once the thing is built, and functional, and it’s time to make it look pretty? I lose interest faster than a goldfish in a dark room.

But that’s the problem, innit? Because the thing’s done only when it’s done. Which the carpentry gods reminded me of, painfully, with my bench.

I build the thing. It’s sturdy. It’s functional. Its edges are square. Its lid goes up and down. It’s basically done. The thought goes through my brain: you should probably sand it down. But having just put the hinge on, and having seen that the lid fits just so perfectly, I figure I’ve earned a break. The plywood I built it with, after all, is sanded on the outside anyway. I go upstairs. Poke at the wife until she agrees to come have a look at it. She agrees with me: it’s not bad.

“Is it done?” she asks.

“Basically,” I say.

“What’s that mean?”

I perambulate through the garage, winding up extension cords, sweeping up piles of sawdust. Job’s basically done, after all. “Well, it’s almost ready for painting, but seeing as we don’t have the paint yet, I figured I ought to take a break. Maybe try it out and see how it looks in the space. Maybe we’ll see what color we want to paint it when we get it up there.”

So we haul it upstairs. Plonk it down in the corner. Sit on it, test it out. Yep, it’s a bench seat.

“Looks good,” she says. (Actually, she lays it on a little thicker than that. She strokes my ego a bit. I think she must’ve been reading some articles or something lately; I feel her psychologizing me.)

“Yeah,” I agree.

“So, what now?”

I ponder. What I really don’t want to do is haul it back downstairs, or work on it at all anymore right at the moment, or perhaps, ever. It’s functional, after all. You can sit on it. The lid opens and shuts. Case closed. (So to speak.) Finally, my answer: “I guess it’s not hurting anything here. We can just keep it over here until we get the paint; then I’ll prep it.”

She gives me a look that I should recognize by now, but I let it bounce off me.

Fast forward a day, and I’m sitting down with the Sprout to work on some sight words. He wants to sit in the kitchen while mommy cooks. Hey! I just made a brand new bench seat for exactly that purpose! So I sit down, scoot over to make room for him, and catch a dagger-sized splinter in the meat of my hand.

Needless to say, after a healthy bit of cursing and an unpleasant bout with some tweezers, I find myself out on the back porch doing the job I should have done to begin with: sanding down the damn bench. It takes all of twenty minutes, and at the end, the thing is well and truly safe and pleasant to sit on, painted or not.

You see where I’m going with this.

I left the project nearly but not entirely finished, and its rough edges caught up to me almost immediately.

The parallel to writing is striking: the thing is not done until it’s done. That means whatever it means for the stage of the project you’re in: the draft isn’t done until you actually write an end to the thing (and go back to write all the things you intentionally skipped over on the way). The edit isn’t done until you’ve been through every inch of the project with your fine-toothed editing comb and fixed all the little fitzy bits. The submissions aren’t done until you’ve written and perfected the query letter and delivered it to the inboxes of everybody you can stand to send it to.

I’ll admit, I’m somewhat of two minds on this topic; I’m acutely aware of the dangers of overcooking an idea. You work at a thing too long and it turns to mush. You break yourself trying to perfect a thing which will never be perfect. There’s a virtue in being able to say, nope, that’s enough, and let a Good Thing simply be good.

But there’s a difference between stopping before you overcook the thing and leaving it properly unfinished, covered in jagged little splinters or worse. (Mixed metaphors, for example.)

Make no mistake — it’s easy to get sick of a project. To want to slap the last chapter in place because you’ve been after it for months and you want desperately to think of anything else. But if you don’t knuckle up to the tedious work that comes with dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and making sure that all of your plotlines properly resolve and don’t just wander off into the ocean or something, well…

Somebody’s gonna catch a splinter up their backside. Maybe even you.

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Hirsute Spheroids, née Hairy Balls, and Your Story


I’m a bit of a physics nerd, by which I mean I love physics oddities and learning macro concepts about how the universe works without actually getting my hands dirty in any of the intractible numbers involved. That fascination often leads me down rabbit holes on youtube, whence I arrive hours later, head buzzing with cosmic understanding or mind shattered from inability to process.

Today’s SOCS prompt is “hair”, and while it’d be easy for me to write again about my lack thereof, my mind immediately leapt to the hairy ball theorem (which is, if nothing else, a perfect example of how badly scientists need help naming things — the “hirsute spheroid theorem” would prompt no more than 1/5th the giggles). In short, the theorem states that if you have a hairy ball (*snicker*), there is no way to comb it in such a way that all the hair lays flat. (And there’s nothing worse than a hairy ball with a cowlick.) The math proves this, though I don’t care too much about the math (that’s the department of my sister and her husband, both Georgia Tech grads who do the rest of us the favor of making sure that the numbers support the buildings that stand up around us and the rockets that put our fancy things up in the air or shoot other countries’ fancy things out of it). What I care about is concept. Hairy ball. Can’t comb it flat.

Here’s a brief explanation of the theorem, if you want a better explanation of it (and Minute Physics is worth the subscribe, by the way):

But this is a writing blog, not a maths blog, so why the hockey sticks am I blerping around, getting all hot and bothered about a physics conundrum?

Because writing stories is a bit like the hirsute spheroid theorem. (Nope, still makes me giggle, if only 1/5 as much.) Stories are these weird little hairy balls. The ball (giggle, snort) is the world of the story, where the characters frolic and screw up and alternately threaten the safety of the world or rescue it from deep-sea humanoid squid monsters. The hair (chortle, cackle) is the characters and their frolics. And like the follicular matter in the hirsute spheroid theorem, there’s no way to have those frolics or those characters line up perfectly. Like a lump in the carpet or, well, like the hair on a ball (okay, seriously, I’m done laughing at that), when you flatten it down in one spot,  it springs up anew somewhere else. Lay a perfect plotline that neatly traverses the entire surface and you arrive back at the beginning to find a bizarre cowlick sticking up.

For a writer, this seems like a problem, but it’s not. Note that the hairy ball theorem is stated as a theorem, not a problem. An observation of reality, not a lament of the way reality ought to be. It’s only a problem if you assume that your hirsute spheroid must somehow attain a measure of perfection, which it never will anyway — the perfect being the enemy of the good, as it is.

Stories have flaws, in other words, and it’s a fool’s errand thinking we can iron them all out. Instead, embrace the flaws, iron out what you can, and accept the odd fact: bed-head is, for some reason, in style.

Image result for bed head

Also, a note: careful with your googling if you go searching the hairy ball theorem. Also, just for the lolz, the Wikipedia entry for the hairy ball theorem cheerily points out that, on Wikipedia at least, “‘hairy balls’ redirects here.”

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


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