Week 4: Art and Imperfection

Lady Catherine de Bourgh claims of music in Pride and Prejudice, “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.” It is the most wonderful thing about Jane Austen’s writing (and we are celebrating all wonderful things about her at our 200th Anniversary Regency Bash Tomorrow (!)) that she can reflect our personal failings in even the most distant characters. This line of Lady Catherine’s has haunted me since my first reading of the novel, voicing a fear which I silence deep within myself every day.

The fact is, much as Lady Catherine’s fantasies of pianoforte mastery are clearly unfounded, none of my creative endeavours are going to live up to their shadowy magnificence in my imagination. Art is almost never a perfectable endeavour; you can work on something for days, weeks, years, and there will nonetheless be knobbly flaws and bits just slightly out of place when you conclude. It is not a question of completion, but of whether you have enough courage to release your work once you have given it all that you can, and to see it as worthwhile to others in spite of its flaws.

Plenty of artists and writers have realised this long before I did, of course. Even Neil Gaiman never said “make perfect art.” Jack Conte, musician and founder of Patreon, is inspiring when he talks of “working to publish,” of moving past the discomfort of a piece of art that seems unfinished or deficient compared with your hopes for it, and publishing it anyway so that it can do some good in the world. Kim Liao’s exhilarating “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year” turns the world of artistic success on its head and insists on the importance of perseverance, thick skin, and above all getting your ideas out from your own interior pedestal, so that they have a chance to come to reality.

LitSoc, this week and always, is doing everything we can to help you to realise your artistic potential. On Wednesday at 7pm we have invited the wonderful Thomas Morris to speak. An award-winning author and editor of The Stinging Fly, (and former Chairperson of this here Literary Society!) Tom has provided aspiring writers with so many helpful articles and tips on improving their craft, and is sure to have important advice for anyone who continues to struggle. Spaces are still open for our writing retreat in beautiful Killarney, a quiet haven to encourage you to make your art as good as it can possibly be, in the comfort of others who know that perfection is not the end goal. Friday is the deadline for submissions to our creative writing journal The Attic, a haven for literary art in all its messy, deficient glory. I urge you to submit, to value your work enough to let us see it and learn from it and allow it to move others. Think it’s too weird? Submit anyway. Think it’s too boring? Submit anyway. Think it’s too short? Submit anyway. Think it’s too long? Submit anyway. I believe you have great work within you, but if you strive forever at the futile task of making great work perfect, no one will ever get a chance to see it.

So many of us are Lady Catherines. We flatter ourselves with belief in our abilities and potential, while never giving ourselves the chance to realise it. We dwell in inaction, paralysed by the fear that should we attempt, our delusions will be exposed. It is so much easier to believe that we would have been great, than it is to actually try for greatness. In a pep talk which I found particularly provoking last year, Alexander Chee explains that “The talented ones often never had to learn to work hard; so many of them don’t finish their work because they never had to—it was enough to be talented, to offer people a glimpse of what you could be.” Prove him wrong. Embrace imperfection, and let us learn from your work.