A writing friend picked up something I posted in a forum years ago, and has it on the wall above her desk. It's from a letter which journalist and scriptwriter Robert Presnell wrote to the great war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was one of those writers who is driven to write as a way of making sense of the world, but is never satisfied by what she has written for more than a few moments. The result is to make writing excruciatingly difficult and slow.
I'm not, of course, saying that tackling a major project, whether it's flash fiction or a 200,000 word biography, is easy. It isn't, most of the time. Yes, there are days when some miraculous combination of circumstances (blood sugar, confidence, passion for the story, a sudden vision of how it should go, the research already nicely composted) propels you into the zone. The (mostly) right words seem to pour out of your fingers, and you don't notice that the music's stopped, you've forgotten to have lunch, and it's two in the morning. But that state only comes about as a result of all the hard work and hammering away that you've put in already.
But of course that's not the only state in which you can write. For various reasons, some parts of A Secret Alchemy were like pulling teeth to write, but I don't think a reader could tell which they were. Writing a major piece is full of practical difficulties and plummets of confidence. And, of course, any writer who's any good knows that any piece could always be better. As I was discussing in Learning to be Bad, it's a condition of being good at something that you know you could be and do better. But I think that's different from the really corrosive conviction that Gellhorn and her like seem to suffer from: you're not allowed to be less than perfect, and anything which isn't perfect has no value at all.
The classic origin of this kind of destructive perfectionism is growing up as Caroline Moorhead's biography of suggests Gellhorn did, in an atmosphere where everything is judged, and therefore usually found wanting in some way: everything is experienced in terms of whether it "measures up", or doesn't. It's corrosive because it may strangle writing at birth, or it may lead to hideous procrastination of the sort I was exploring in Cup of Tea? I'll get going in a minute. The irony there, of course, is that in the end the work will be less good than it would have been, because you had to do it in a rush. But, ultimately, if you can't feel your work has any value unless it's perfect, then (since it never will be perfect), you're setting yourself up to be eternally unfulfilled.
As all teachers and parents know (or should know), if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly. Not carelessly, or sloppily, or less well than you're capable of, but "badly" in the sense of imperfectly, because we are all imperfect, and anyway, perfection in the arts is near-impossible to define, or designate. And, even more importantly, if you can't allow your writing - which means yourself - to have any value unless it's perfect, you're not actually setting yourself up to write any better. As as Grayson Perry says, creativity is mistakes. You have to get it wrong before you get it right. Each time you do something not-perfectly, you're learning to do things better, to handle your writerly self better, to make better work happen. I'd go as far as to say that to refuse to write a piece unless it can be perfect is a form of arrogance, like walking out of an exam at the beginning because you're afraid you won't get an A*: it's an assertion that the normal, humble messiness of creative work-in-progress is for lesser mortals, not for you.
And this is what Robert Presnell said to Martha Gellhorn:
Who is the judge that sits perpetually in your head? Write those lines, you silly fool, they are all yours, both the good and the bad, and no one exists in purity and essence. Write the bad lines if only to keep writing... Writing is lonely, wretched, unheralded, often meaningless, insignificant, and too often devoid of even a masturbatory pleasure, mean though that is. Write, Martha, and stop crying at the cold. You've wept long enough.