Learning the difference between excellence and perfection has been one of the most powerful lessons in my life. From my viewpoint the difference is pretty simple. Perfection quits with any stumble. Excellence on the other hand, will stumble, get back up,and then hop, skip, and jump to keep on going. Excellence can always find a way to finish by leaning on Good Intention and Persistence. Perfection, on the other hand, rarely gets anywhere near the finish line because one blunder ends the race. Period. Writing my first book ‘Will You Dance?’ (WYD) was a powerful lesson in this concept.
WYD was never an ‘intended’ book. The day I wrote it, my intention was to write a Christmas letter to family and friends. My higher self clearly had other ideas and three hours after sitting down to write that letter something magical had happened. I had written what is now a 212 page book, in one fell swoop. It was no doubt stream of consciousness writing; powerful, raw, and perfect. Or so I thought. A friend offered to send it to an editor she knew for a little bit of clean up. Seemed like a good idea, so off it went. A few weeks later, my tattered mass of white pages fastened with a big binder clip came back to me. I could hardly wait to read the words of praise I knew would be there. There was a pretty little yellow sticky note right on the front. In bold black letters it said this; ‘You have tried to tackle a subject even great minds have failed at. Leave it to the great minds.’ The blood still rushes to my face when I think about this. I was devastated, humiliated, and a dozen other mortifying things all at once. As I leafed through the marked up pages, what I kept reading over and over was that I needed to work on my syntax. It was not the first time I had heard this god-awful word- ‘syntax’. I could never pull higher than a ‘C’ in any college English class that I took and it usually came down to that same word; syntax. (Even as I write this I am wondering, do I capitalize the ‘E’ in English? – googled it, yes I do!) Back to my illustrious days in college English classes – I loved to write, but quickly surrendered to the fact that my version of writing and a collegiate English teacher’s version had a wide expanse of space between them. Therefore I took only the English classes that I had to, and steered far and wide from any other writing class for the next ten years of college. (Yes, I managed to get a Ph.D. and never took a single writing class.)
In 1998, wanting to fulfill my dream of writing a book, I signed up for a ‘writer’s work shop’. I paid my $800 and dutifully arrived to the weekend event intent on soaking up everything I could. As I sat there listening to the formulary being given, I felt like cold icy fingers were grabbing me tight around the neck. I could almost instantly hear that college English teacher from the past saying “ You have to work on your syntax.” Damn, even now that word makes my shoulders touch my ears. (That sentence probably has horrible syntax, but it’s EXACTLY what I want to say!) I lasted about 45 minutes in the workshop- I walked out and have never looked back.
My syntax is still horrible. When I am weaving words together, the last thing on my mind is getting the punctuation ‘just right’. What I want is to get the emotion, the imagery, and the passion right. I still don’t care much if I get my commas in the right spot- what I care about, is if my words hit the right spot… does your mind read them, the way my heart writes them? That is what matters to me. If I get hung up on trying to write perfectly, I will never finish the race. So when I stumble with a run on sentence here, and a poorly placed semi colon there… just know that bruises and all- for me, the race just keeps going. I may not always win, but I do always finish.
And back to that editor and his advice to me – to lay down my dream and let greater minds carry on. Well, I know he knew a lot more about syntax than I ever will, and I accept that my writing could be used as an example of ‘what not to do’ in English classes everywhere. But I wonder if he knows that the very same manuscript that he told me to throw away, went to press un-edited and within months of its publication received one national and two international literary awards? I would love to tell him that over the past 12 years WYD has sold more than 10,000 copies.
Those who read, ‘Will You Dance?’ consistently say that the way the book is written makes it feel like ‘their’ story. I never, ever, ever tell them… it’s because my syntax sucks.