It’s not that I pretend I don’t want my work to be perfect. I do. But I realize—recognize—it can never be so. Yet, I persist, if I’m not paying attention.
Sometimes, it’s good to let something go as it is. And sometimes it’s better to scrap the thing and start again, scrape the canvas, delete the tracks, crumple up the page.
How do we know when to stop? Deadline is a good full stop, but if you don’t have one, it’s an arbitrary point where you’re out of flow, getting stuck in fine details, with little or no progress or change to the big picture.
There will be no bell. No buzzer. You can choose the moment—but sooner rather than later is usually not a bad thing. Your time is all you really have, and making another imperfect thing helps more in the long run than approaching the logarithmic curve of perfect.
DISCLAIMER: watchmaker and Zen master mileage may vary.
I’m thinking about two competing ideas about the artist’s path to doing work. In one, you should strive to be the best in the world at what you do. This sort of philosophy holds that you will stand out by relentlessly getting better at it, and that your work will be able to rise to the top and obtain eyeballs. Certainly.
In the other idea, there’s a point where the work isn’t perfect, not the best in the world—maybe not even very refined at all—but it fully conveys your meaning and intent. It does the job. It’s good enough.
I think we hold back a lot from creating things and putting them into the world because we’re afraid of their imperfection. We worry they aren’t as good as stuff made by the artists we hold in highest regard. But you get no points for things you make that aren’t out there. The only way to get better is to keep making things. And your work doesn’t have to be perfect to evoke emotion in the rest of us, to stir us with its passion, to inspire us with its beauty—or its repugnance. It doesn’t have to be “good,” it just has to be good enough.
Part of this is what you’re making. It may be so that the fine craftsmanship and technical nuance of the work is most important. In that case, yeah, you want to strive to be the best in the world. But that path is long, and there are lots of types of art that can just be good enough. Consider the difference between the dreamy precision of an early Alan Parsons Project album and Bob Dylan wheezing out his own songs. In the case of the latter, good enough is sometimes genius, and we need it in the world.
Thinking about the title of this post, I half-heard a half-remembered song in my head. There had to be tons of songs titled “Good Enough.” And, of course, there are. But the one that had nagged at me was Van Halen’s. It’s the lead track off 5150, and was still fun to listen to after I’d searched it up. An exuberant, flashy, over-the-top middle finger to the pre-haters of the then brand new iteration of the band, it sort of bridges the gap between the sleazy, goofball, raunchy sound of the David Lee Roth era to the over-earnest, FM-synth-washed, party bro Sammy Hagar phase. But it was the only one from the album I could stand to listen to completely.
What seemed an evolution to me just out of high school now seems, well, stuck in a high school sentimentality. It’s weird which fond musical memories remain firmly in the nostalgia folder as we get older and which get revised and edited.
I may have reached a point sometime within the last few months where I’ve decided that how a piece of art makes me feel, and what thoughts it evokes in me, is more important than its mechanics.
This is significant, I think, because I’ve thought less of this approach to art in the past, sometimes ignoring my experience of a work to analyze the details. Counting trees—hell, climbing and mapping and naming them—instead of just perceiving the forest.
My experience of the forest isn’t diminished by a couple of names carved in one trunk, or a crumbling stump in a clearing. I have the whole, and I feel something walking through it. Its imperfections are natural. We take it in stride that nothing is perfect. I’m trying now to understand what’s important about a work, despite its imperfections.
Maybe sometimes there are too many, perhaps a clear cutting has occurred, or a fire has swept through leaving sorry ashen spikes. Maybe a film has too terrible a performance (or no good ones) or a painting exhibits dull choices and clumsy technique. I do think some works are probably objectively bad.
But if imperfection is only natural, maybe you can see and praise and ponder the things that have value, or are evocative, or powerful. Maybe there isn’t so much time to spend on the other things.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.