Chasing Illusive Perfection by Molly Mary McLaughlin
In 2005, I wasn’t a writer. That’s not to say I wasn’t writing, rather I was waiting for that magical day when the labor would lighten and the words would flow freely from my hands, perfectly formed the moment ink met page. I imagined the writers I admired, whose minds were so developed they hardly needed to change a comma once the first draft was finished, enshrined in some literary afterlife and chuckling together as they watched others struggle to get to the end of a sentence without scratching out at least half, the veritable guardian angels of Quality Literature. In keeping at my own writing, I felt I was missing some secret. Surely, stories like The Hobbit, Fahrenheit 451, and Dune, which were my favorites, had sprung from their creators ready for publication. Now, as an editor, it’s tempting to dismiss this notion as naïve, but it was sincere at the time and I try to respect that sincerity.
Virtually everything I’d written up to 2005 had been for an assignment, which had rules: a structure to be followed, a rubric to identify good writing and bad. The stories I read had structure too. Writing stories also required following rules. A story had to have more than a beginning, middle, and end; complex protagonists and antagonists weren’t enough to carry a story forward; stories had to have Metaphor, and the good ones all had a Deeper Meaning, all of which had been identified and agreed to long before I had read them. The stories that mattered all had Allusion, Alliteration, Assonance and a connection to an Ancient Truth. There were right and wrong answers, and every one of them could be explored fully through the perfect form that was the Five Paragraph Essay.
By the time I reached my senior year of high school, I’d developed a three-tier, color-coded system of Post-It flags to mark points of particular importance in books for school. Particular importance to me meant possibly of use for writing the inevitable paper, and there were usually three or four flags per page. Such was the case with Hamlet, whose pages were made somehow both brittle and supple through years of passing through the hands of high school seniors. The inevitable paper was already written, submitted, and graded, and among the uneven stack on my teacher’s desk while he introduced Chaucer.
With thirty minutes remaining, instead of handing out our respective papers, everybody received a photocopy of the same paper with the writer’s name obscured. I felt my stomach drop when I read the first sentence and recognized my paper. When I looked up, my teacher was smiling at me and signaling for me not to say anything. He then proceeded to use my paper as an example of effective and quality writing. There was a part of me that was mortified, convinced there had been a mistake and he had copied the wrong paper.
However, as he reviewed the paper sentence by sentence, that fear began to dissipate. There had been no mistake. He had read my paper and judged it worth sharing. At first I couldn’t imagine why, as it was another five-paragraph essay exploring whether Polonius was a fool who flailed his way through the play or some sort of puppetmaster in control of all the action. It had been the more interesting of the two possible prompts, and I’d taken the latter stance because it seemed the less obvious choice and the challenge of supporting it seemed more enjoyable. I’ll admit I haven’t picked up Hamlet since then, so I can’t confirm whether I still agree with my former self, but as the teacher moved through my paper, it became clear I’d chosen the least popular of the options available. I was one of only two students out of his four classes who’d worked on the Polonius prompt, and the only one who’d argued the character’s wisdom. While I’m sure my face was growing redder by the moment, it was thrilling to have someone with all the credentials (a degree in English and a tattoo of a quill) take the time to delve into my work. It was the first time I’d received more than a grade alongside a note, “Nice job!” or “Interesting,” with no explanation of what was nice or interesting about what I’d written. It was also the first time my work was shared with a group, though I hadn’t chosen to share it, and analyzed as if I’d written something worthy of analysis, so when we got to the end of my paper and the English teacher asked if the author would like to identify herself, I timidly raised my hand.
The moment I decided to major in English, it was 10pm, and I was sitting in the vinyl-upholstered booth of a boat fourteen miles off the east coast of Australia while completing a log of the dive from which I’d just returned. The log itself was standardized and fairly straightforward. With most of the sections on location and gear details, they were often completed with readily available numbers like starting air pressure, ending air pressure, type of gear worn, visibility and cumulative time spent diving. However, nearly half the page was taken up by a comments section, and it was that section I was writing.
We were all exhausted from the two dives we’d done to the S.S. Yongala, which lay 130 feet below the Pacific and grew farther behind us as we sped toward our second dive destination: a reef no more than 30 feet in depth that would be bathed in rich sunlight by the time we arrived, a far cry from the Yongala, which we’d seen only by the beams of our flashlights and the distant firefly-lights of glowsticks on the tanks of other divers. The glowsticks were attached in case a flashlight went out, because the ocean was so dark at that depth and time it might as well have been deep space.
As the dull headache that always followed a dive began to set in, I found myself only half listening to the conversation around me. I’d been writing about an encounter with a sea turtle who’d been sleeping with a fin wrapped around a coral branch on the wreck, and wakened by our passing, had followed us up to the surface. Despite majoring in marine biology for three years, I was having trouble recalling the species names and instead described how extraordinary it was to see wild turtles up close, along with sea snakes and fish twice the size and population of their near-shore counterparts, how we’d stood on the deck of our vessel watching the sun set and listened as the first group of divers surfaced to tell us about the bull shark they’d seen circling the wreck. We were given the option to forgo the dive if we were afraid of sharks, and while I had many other fears beyond sharks (e.g., the dark, the bends, open water, getting tetanus from a 100-year-old wreck on the bottom of the ocean, getting haunted by the ghosts that obviously hang around it, losing both my flashlight and my glowstick, etc.), I’d decided that to miss this dive would be something I’d regret forever. I questioned my decision twice: first, after I was chosen as the initial person down the descent line, a thin white rope that disappeared endlessly into the dark until the shadowy wreck loomed up from the spectral ocean floor; and second, when there was a flash over our heads, and a sudden stillness among our group, as the nine-foot bull shark passed, ghostlike, overhead. Yet I came up smiling, filled with pride and adrenaline, knowing at that moment I was the coolest I would ever be.
By the time I’d finished writing, I had exceeded the space available for comments on the dive log and was filling up a second notebook page to be inserted in the log later, when an argument at the table brought me back to the moment. Species identification of grouper was the topic, and in the absence of working cellphones, marine field guides published in the ’70s and ’80s had been hauled out and the faded colors of the illustrations were cited as proof that we’d seen one species rather than another, ignoring that it had been night when the grouper was spotted and color is mostly irrelevant 130 feet below the surface, even during the day. A glance at my immediate neighbor’s log revealed the comments section was a third of the way filled with a list in Latin.
Everyone went to bed that night with dive logs tucked into backpacks or wrapped in T-shirts to serve as pillows on the hard bunks while we steamed through the darkness. It was hardly a luxury vessel, and the discomfort of lying on what was more a plastic shelf than a bunk, combined with my customary insomnia, saw me back on deck at 4:30am, two hours before sunrise, drinking in the richness of the warm sea breeze in total darkness and quiet broken only by the sonorous purr of the engine. The words I had written immediately after the dive flowed through my mind, receding and returning, changing as I searched for the perfect moment to freeze them and capture the emotions and sensations I’d experienced. The thoughts of Metaphor, of finding a Deeper Meaning and an Ancient Truth were pushed aside for the purpose of discovering exactly the right way to explain what had happened less than twelve hours earlier. I didn’t much care what the story meant, only that I could tell it truthfully and well.
Soul searching is remarkably easy when you’re sitting alone on a boat miles from shore, in the dark, nine time zones from home. I was mentally revising the narrative of the dive while my brain ran like an overwound music box, the adrenaline of so many fears conquered, and I stared at what I assumed was the horizon, waiting for the slightest hint of light to appear. Life comes into focus at moments like those, and the things that don’t really matter fall away. What remained at sunrise was the memory, the words, and the certainty that if I could only arrange them in just the right way, with precisely the right light shone at the right angle, the right amount of shadow and fear, it would be a story worth telling.
In 2015, I am a writer. That’s not to say I’ve published any great quantity of work, rather that the magical day I was waiting for was not the day everything became easy, but the day I could truthfully call myself a writer. The labor has not fallen away, nor do I often find words flowing all that freely, and they’re rarely perfect the moment they’re written, but over the past ten years, I’ve explored more deeply the creative processes of writers I admired, and took immense comfort in the discovery that hardly any work ends up the way it began. Instead of the benevolent but inherently superior angels of Quality Literature, I now imagine the writers I admired as a coterie of sympathetic spirits more likely to raise a glass in solidarity than ridicule a fellow writer, and perhaps this wasn’t such an exclusive organization as I’d originally thought. Certainly, there’s a substantial element of genius in work that persists beyond its era, but often the creators themselves seemed surprised to have had their work recognized.
While completing my master’s degree in literature and creative writing, I found myself developing a literary crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne, who, though usually counted among the pantheon of enduring American authors, is underrated and overlooked as far as I’m concerned. Every word he published exhibits the kind of care, skill, and self-awareness many writers strive for, done so consistently and masterfully, there hardly seems any effort to it at all. In fact, Hawthorne took great pains to encourage and perpetuate the perception that he was a solitary genius whose pen never touched paper without perfection pouring from it, all the while destroying the evidence of previous drafts, unpolished sentences and imperfect work. Whether he was the originator of the maxim, “Easy reading is damn hard writing,” which has been attributed to a number of people throughout history, it’s difficult to argue he wasn’t in a position to know the truth of the statement.
In the course of composing this essay, I’ve written at least four versions of both preceding sections, to say nothing of the times I’ve told them before now. Neither of them is especially complex, yet in each retelling, I feel them drawing closer to their nebulous cores, the parts most important for me to tell them faithfully. It’s this lesson, perhaps, that’s the most important one I’ve learned over the past ten years. Revision is at the heart of writing, and it hardly suggests a flaw in the writer’s ability or the story’s necessity. It’s not perfection that keeps me writing. It’s the certainty that a story worth writing is a story worth re-writing, and I have many more stories to write.
Molly M. McLaughlin is a writer and editor who holds an MA in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts Boston and an MA in Literature and Publishing from the National University of Ireland Galway. Her photographs have been published in Zephyr and ROPES, and she writes mostly character-driven fiction and fantasy. Molly lives near Boston and is an Editorial Project Manager for Pharmacology and Toxicology books with Elsevier. She is an Assistant Editor for apt.