October 6, 2015

SHEN | The Perfect Paragraph

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By ZHAO SHEN

I’m that guy. The one who does his utmost to make his English paper’s first draft impeccable, and then makes a few tweaks and idles quietly when the final draft guidelines call for “substantial revisions.” The one who will spend as much time as necessary to browse Thesaurus.com for that word at the tip of his tongue, who will take a day-long break to mull things over but will never begin writing the next paragraph if he has any misgivings about the first. The one who is deciding not to proceed to the next paragraph of this blog until this one is perfect.

It’s a problem. When I was younger, I’d write novel-length fantasy stories all the time. I spent countless hours dreaming of new ideas, sketching out maps and planning out how the series would continue. This would be the first book in a cycle of five books. Then maybe five more books on another continent. And five after that to bring the two sets of characters together, which will culminate in the most epic finale of all time. Perfect. Somewhere in my basement, stacks and stacks of papers outline all of my authorial ambitions. These papers were actually fairly elaborate, detailing which villain would be introduced in which book, how the ultimate big baddy would tie in with the antagonist from the first novel… Stuff like that.

Yet despite all of this supplemental preparation, I was only ever able to finish one novel, which brings me back to my problem: perfectionism in writing. If I have trouble beginning a paragraph when the previous one feels disappointing, imagine me trying to write a book. Line after line of words that I feel compelled to make right. A form of OCD, if you will. I’m surprised I even managed to finish the one novel, though I abandoned it soon after (naturally) because it felt like a weak opening to what I envisioned as a bestselling saga. In hindsight, it was a cute aspiration.

Over the years my outlet for creativity has shifted from writing stories to composing music, though I still try to make progress on a novel from time to time. What I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t be disheartened by imperfection because it’s what makes writing interesting to read. The metaphor, one of the most beautiful means of literary expression, thrives because it is imperfect. It describes something in a way that isn’t quite right, yet that wrongness, that improper narration, is what makes it so special to read. When I read a sublime metaphor that I’ve never seen before, I straddle a fine line – half in awe, half in envy (but all in good spirit). Why, though? The metaphor isn’t perfect. But it’s unique, and that’s the thing. The author found a new way to be imperfect, and that deserves appreciation.

But wait, we still haven’t solved my problem. Perfectionism. Right. There are two ways to look at it. The first way is to acknowledge the problem and realize that nothing can be perfect, and that what may seem perfect to you might not be from someone else’s point of view. Or as an alternate perspective, we might decide that perfectionism is not so bad after all. Sure it may take longer to write papers or books, and sure other people may not agree that your work is perfect, but in the end the best we can do is to satisfy ourselves. I’ll still try to cure myself of Paragraph Perfection Syndrome just to tour the grass on the other side (it does look a little greener currently), but who knows? Maybe I’ll realize that PPS isn’t as much a disease as it is a workflow, and maybe that workflow suits me. We’ll see. For now, I still have it, and it will take a lot of effort before anything changes. If it does though, I’ll let you know when I finish that 15-book series. Bringing the two sets of characters together in an epic finale. Sounds perfect.

Zhao Shen is a freshman computer science major in the College of Arts and Sciences. He loves music, movies, milkshakes and penguins, and is currently working on his doctorate degree in procrastination. He can be reached at ys525@cornell.edu.

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