Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Critic and the Craftsman

perfectionism n. 1 the uncompromising pursuit of excellence. 2 Philos. the belief that religious or moral perfection is attainable.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary

PERFECTION, n. An imaginary state or quality distinguished from the actual by an element known as excellence; an attribute of the critic.

Ambrose Bierce
The Devil's Dictionary

Yesterday, a PhD student accused me of being against perfectionism. That is not altogether unjustified, but I need to make some qualifications, of course.

Richard Sennett describes "the craftsman" in terms of "a strategic acceptance of ambiguity, rather than an obsessive perfectionism" and Ambrose Bierce declares perfection to be an "attribute of the critic". (He did not think highly of critics: "A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him".) An academic writer, I want to propose, is both a craftsman and a critic. That may be precisely the ambiguity that Sennett says we have to be strategic about.

Submitting work for critique, whether to your fellow students or to your thesis supervisor, to your local colleagues or to your community of peers (a journal), will always be a compromise. You always want to say, "It's a work in progress." "This is not a finished thought." "Obviously there is much more to be said." Indeed, "perfect" simply means "all done". Well, you never finish. Of course.

Of course. Neither my PhD student, nor anyone else I've talked to, seriously defends perfectionism as a philosophy for very long. One wants to say that one finds writing very difficult because one is a perfectionist. And that is right in one sense, perhaps in principle. But, like all "strategically ambiguous" people, academics know that the principle is flawed. Nobody and nothing is perfect. Least of all ourselves, our selves.

At the end of the day, it will be a work in progress, an "open site", a "journey not a destination". Craftsmanship has to do with accomplishing a "work" within a set of constraints, including temporal ones. It also, and very importantly, has to do with completing things incompletely, if you will. You have to reach a state of completeness that allows you to begin anew, an "attempt" that implies the opportunity to "try again". The craftsman hopes to perfect her craft, not the table she is working on today.

She has to work through every step in the process, knowing that the table will be subject to critique from the master (and perhaps even the user) when she is "finished" (but never "all done"). She has to finish a set of tasks in this ambiguous way again and again before she attains mastery. And the master craftsman also continues in this way. You must do the best you can within the allotted time in order for criticism to teach you what you can do better.

In woodworking, each step in the process has a certain irreversability to it. Once you have turned the leg on the lathe, or cut the tabletop, or assembled the frame, you can't go back and do it better. The materials have changed. They are now in their final position. In writing, by contrast, we have the illusion that the text can always be improved, that the materials don't suffer from being taken apart and put together again countless times.

There is some truth to that (but also some illusion, which I will talk about another time). That is why your writing schedule is so important. It defines tasks (like turning the legs, cutting the top, assembling the frame) that can be completed without attaining perfection. Let perfection be an attribute of your critic. And I do know that you, too, are a critic. But the critic looks at the page after the craftsman's work is finished.

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