Monday, November 30, 2009

Perfect or good enough?

Patty here…

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” French writer and philosopher François-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778), better known by his pen name Voltaire wrote these words. Many people interpret the sentiment to mean that perfection is difficult if not impossible to achieve so at some point are forced to view our efforts as being good enough. My only question is how do we know when we’ve reached that point?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept lately and it was brought to mind again this past Saturday at a screening of the movie “That Evening Sun.” It’s the story of Abner Meecham, an elderly Tennessee farmer who escapes the nursing home where he’s been living for the past three months and returns to the family farm only to discover that his son has leased the property to an old enemy without informing him.

The film was followed by a Q&A. Ed Harris interviewed the film’s star, Hal Holbrook.

At eighty-four and with over fifty years in show biz, Holbrook talked about how meaningful it was to shoot the movie in Tennessee, the setting in the book and also the home state of his wife, Dixie Carter.

Toward the end of the interview, Harris asked for questions from the audience. The last one of the evening went something like this: “Mr. Holbrook what inspires you to keep going after all these years?”

Holbrook had been charming and informative throughout the interview, but his face lit up and his passion bubbled to the surface. In a strong, clear voice, he said: “What keeps me inspired? That’s easy. All I ever wanted to be was a good actor."

This Oscar-nominated, Emmy and Tony award-winning thespian is certainly much more than a “good” actor to his legions of fans, but I noted with particular interest that he hadn’t said he wanted to be a legend, or an actor whose publicist booked him on a thirty-two city tour to promote the film, or even a rich actor.

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Holbrook reiterated this point of view:

"… I have never thought of myself as being a star. I just wanted to be the best actor I could possibly be."

I was impressed that Holbrook is still working on his craft. He said thanks to Sean Penn’s direction in the film “Into the Wild,” something inside him became unplugged and he was able to use that newfound awareness for his role in “That Evening Sun.”

Even after I left the theatre, Holbrook’s words continued rumbling around in my head. Every day we all face the perfection versus good enough dilemma. A business executive wonders if she has time to tinker with a report due on her boss’s desk by ten. The artist adds brushstrokes to a painting that will never be finished. A writer massages her manuscript, sometimes to its detriment, before she is willing to send it out into the world, because she worries that “good enough” gives her premature permission to quit. If perfection is unattainable but we continue reaching for it, we end up unsatisfied. Worse yet, we never finish.

For writers, actors and others, as well, it’s easy to get caught up in the white noise surrounding our work—the reviews, the fans, the awards. It takes somebody like Hal Holbrook to talk us down, to remind us that it's really about the acting or the writing. At least it should be. Thanks, Hal. You unplugged something in me, so here goes, “All I want is to be the best writer I can possibly be.”

And by the way, you were way more than good in this film. You were perfect.

Happy Monday!


  1. Thanks. I think I needed this post today.

  2. As I go through this 800-word piece for the sixteenth time, your post could not have been more appropriate.

  3. Yeah, maybe it's time to let those babies fly on their own. May the force be with you.

  4. James O. Born11/30/2009 8:27 AM

    I heard a congressman use the Voltaire line just this morning.

    Some how sounds better when not associated with politics.


  5. Almost everything sounds better these days when not associated with politics.

  6. Like Jim, I've most recently heard the phrase associated with current legislation (rather appropriately).

    But it's got so much more power when referencing a personal endeavor. I'll never do it perfectly. But I might do it better.

  7. Patty, what a lovely post - perfect, if I may say so. I am always trying to be the best writer I can be (I'm checking the galleys for my next book at the moment, so this is good timing). Sometimes I just know that whatever I have written is the best I can do now - maybe not next week, next month or next year, but for now, yes, it's my best.

  8. Lu and Our J, that's the "perfect" sentiment: the best for now, more better later.

  9. The damn problem, as all fellow scribblers know, is figuring when it's as close-to-perfect as we can get.

  10. Anybody have a formula?