So you’re done and you hit the PRINT key. The printer wakes up from hibernation and out comes your latest work of genius. You watch the paper roll out. You grope for metaphors–leaves falling in autumn, snow flakes in winter, you falling back on your bed, weary and purged and hoping to just let it all go when–
You see, in the middle of that paragraph you rewrote and revised and spellchecked–a mistake. A typo, a grammar flub, or, worse, a string of words that make you fall back in your chair with a butt-squishing thud and say, “I wrote that?”
Why is it that what we write on a screen looks so perfect until we print it out? Or, more accurately, why is it easier to see obvious flaws when we can hold our work in our hands?
A similar phenomenon occurs when you read the piece aloud. You not only learn that some things that happen on a page do not sound good when recited, but that you add, or subtract words as you read, as if your brain is going back to the moments of your original composition and improving on them.
To what extent does the medium change the message? I won’t go so far as to invoke Marshall McLuhan’s famous book title “The Medium is the Message,” because, when media become most effective, we don’t feel as if we’re watching television or reading a newspaper–we’re immersed in the story almost as if it is more real than our current surroundings.
And yet television programs, as well as much of the “free” Internet, are punctuated meretricious, attention-grabbing advertisements that try to pull us away from our escapist pleasures and remind us that we are flawed, quietly despairing human beings who can only come to terms with our woeful inferiority by consuming this thing that will make us perfect, happy, healthy, functional, smiling, sensational! The message in that medium is that of aspirational consumption–we can be all we want to be if we keep acquiring stuff.
So what kind of product can I buy so that my polished, over-revised meticulously proof-read, piece of writing flops out of the printer, I see only, merely and exclusively my piece, and not those sneaky little typos, flubs, and mistakes that anybody but me would fix?
Another writer I knew, who bragged to me about spending his summers living in cheap digs in Morocco, told me that all pious artists and craftspeople always include a flaw in their work because only God is perfect and to aspire to perfection is to blaspheme the Almighty.
So…in trying to rid my work of the errors that would, at least, distract from the story I want to tell (at worst, so disgust a reader as to make that reader toss my work aside), I am setting in motion a spiritual process that, if it doesn’t reveal booboos that I missed the first time, creates them for the second.
Now it has been said in other places, by other writers, that idealism–the relentless pursuit of perfect, flawless or drop-dead beautiful states of art, design, engineering or behavior–is just another path to perdition.
And yet, when we go on a job interview, appear in public or–in our outrage-fueled times–attain a degree of celebrity or notoriety, we don’t want spots on our clothing. The few guys left who still wear neckties want that knot to be a flawless inverted isosceles triangle, with the longer end in front of the shorter end, and no food stains or boogers on the fabric. This is doable, right?
Until we put on the tie, go to the job interview, or the party, or the event, do our thing, put up with the things other people are doing, and all goes well until we pass a mirror and we notice–
How did THAT get there?
Could this have something to do with philosophical idealism, which holds that there is stuff “out there” that we’ll never fully grasp or understand, but that by acknowledging this and striving to approach this stuff, we’ll comprehend reality better than we would if we depended on what we got from our senses?
Don’t know. My mother hated dirt. I have anxieties about spots on my clothing that I will never shake off. At a writers conference I heard a panel discussion in which editors and agents were snarking off about query letters and manuscripts they reject if they find more than a single error on the page. Such flubs, they claimed, indicated that the author was unprofessional, and, therefore, “not quite what we have in mind.”
I expect that one day science will rescue us, by doing a study that “proves” that errors in work are a better indication of all those character traits that make you a great partner, parent, employee and…writer of stuff worth reading, and those who pursue ideals of cleanliness, sartorial perfection and grammatical cool are precisely the kind who cannot deal with humiliation, embarrassment, chagrin and all those other intensely human emotions that never quite go away, but can leave the room, when you learn to love what you do.