One of the reasons the topic is at the forefront of my mind this slightly dreary Thursday is the question asked by Guardian critic Tom Service: ‘Do British orchestras play too perfectly?’ He is not alone in wondering if this perfection has somehow drowned the vital spark of intensity that makes a good performance a great one.
But it’s not only perfection of a musical kind that’s got me thinking, a belated trip to see Black Swan has also set the cogs whirring. Back in the day, I wanted to be a ballet dancer very badly and I spent a lot of time not only practicing, but also reading and absorbing everything I could about ballet. I think the film does an excellent job of highlighting one of the most difficult aspects for young dancers – identifying the difference between technical proficiency and being a good performer.
So much of ballet is very strictly controlled and dependant on established restrictions that it’s easy to plough all of your efforts into getting every step, posture and gesture correct, but the real measure of success is the ability to emote and engage with your audience.
When it comes to writing, we’re a lot freer that we are in many other mediums. The constraints and conventions obviously vary depending who or what you are writing for – an article, a blog or a novel all set up very different reader expectations – but aside from the ability to somehow communicate words to someone else, I can think of very few writerly rules that cannot be broken for the sake of expression.
Yet, overall, it seems that very few people actually choose to break many of these rules, and I wonder whether this is because the majority of them work, and work well. But I also can’t help contemplating the idea that by making sure we pay attention to our grammar, our spelling, our arc, our character progression, our themes and cliff-hangers, are we sometimes stifling the impulses that could make our good, competent work great?
It would be easy to ask whether we are all striving too hard for our writing to be perfect and prescriptive, and therefore missing out along the way. But when I think of all of those hours of ballet practice I remember the best dancing lesson I ever learned: it take years and years to train your body to the point it will remember the rules and steps for you, and that’s the point at which you can really begin to dance.
I think the same holds true for writing, you slave away at it all for what feels like forever, until the day you can start to subtly bend and break the rules to allow you greater freedom to tell your story. The trick must be to make sure you never fall into the problem Tom describes, and allow the pursuit of perfection to become your driving force to the detriment of the art.