Enemy of the Good

Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire by Salvador Dali

“Perfect is the enemy of the good.”  
~ Voltaire

Thoughts about when something is finished are, at least for me, bound up in the idea of perfection.

I don’t think Voltaire, or any artist whose work has achieved lasting influence, spent their time striving for “good.” Still, at some point, you have to stop. You have to put down your pen or brush or chisel somewhere short of perfect.

While I’m writing, I’m striving for perfection, but even while I reach for this state, I recognize that it is unattainable. This means managing a certain level of cognitive dissonance while I work.

The Pursuit of Perfection
Voltaire is talking about escaping the snare of perfectionism that has trapped so many writers. Performing artists are forced to overcome this in a way that writers are not. A singer or an actor knows that all they can do is master their craft and put their best work out there. If they fall down, they do it in front of an audience. Most of them seem to live to try again another day. It’s their continued pursuit of perfection that opens the door to transcendent moments.

Like Don Quixote we must learn to thrive while pursuing the impossible. This is what allows us to grow and achieve the mastery to create work that transcends the mundane, work that may even stand the test of time.

The Internal Editor’s Place
That voice inside your head that assures you that this project isn’t going to amount to anything, is an indispensible tool, but one that can be difficult to control and crippling to production. I’ve never been able to “turn off” that voice –as so many writing columns advise. Rather, I put it off. While I’m working on a draft, I’ll keep my journal open, and when my editor’s voice intrudes, I quickly jot down the suggestion, then return to my work. This quiets the editor and keeps me in the flow. When I finish the draft and am ready to revise, I have a ready-made list of editorial musings to consider (many of which are no longer pertinent, BTW).

It’s in revision that my sense of taste, my idea of perfection combines with my internal editor to bring the story from a chaotic conglomeration of raw emotion, confusing timelines and misplaced exposition to a tale that hits all its beats and creates a deeply affecting, resonant experience. At least that’s the goal.

Evolution and Mastery: Learning to Let Go
I think Voltaire is talking about the ability to make a more personal assessment. To know yourself.

I must be able to look at my work after I’ve taken it through however many rounds of revision and recognize that this one is as good as I can make it. I must let it go. Go on to the next project knowing that each new piece will challenge me in a new way, and with each challenge I will inch closer to that impossible dream of perfection.

The frontispiece for Voltaire’s Philosophy of Newton

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