Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Quest for Imperfection . . .

or "Getting Our Wabi-Sabi On" 

A quilting buddy told me that 2014 was going to be her year of wabi-sabi.

I had never heard the term. She said it meant you let go of the quest for perfection and celebrate the perfection that already exists. Since she was laughing and feeling less stressed, I thought she meant something more than that little green ball of hotness you mix in with your shoyu sauce when eating sushi.

I jumped online to learn wabi-sabi is a deeply held Japanese philosophy that is at the very core of Japanese esthetics.

For example, consider just one aspect of the very formal Japanese tea ritual which involves the host selecting precisely the right cup for the guests. The most treasured cup may have some sort of imperfection, a roughness in shape or design. The cup that is the most humble, that does not draw attention to itself, honors the guest as well as the art of tea-making and tea-drinking.

According to Richard Powell, “[Wabi-sabi] nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect” (1).

As I look at my ROW80 goals for 2014, I felt a knot of tension unwind. For while I do not truly understand this very complicated philosophy that stems from medieval Japanese thought, and that, yes, has been both appreciated and commercialized here in the states, these were words I needed to hear.

Nothing lasts. Nothing is finished. Nothing is perfect.

Nothing lasts. It doesn’t matter if we are twenty, forty, or seventy. The very impermanence of our lives means our writing — product or process — or any other commitment we make — will not last. We live in this moment, the now. In this sense of stepping away from the awareness of time, outside the flow of past and future, we choose to value our precious time, the ‘now’, by our actions and affirmations. A contradiction: I am a writer, yet I write, knowing that nothing lasts.

Nothing is finished. How well I know this in my bones. I cannot read a page of anything I’ve ever written, whether poetry or fiction, without wanting to change a word or question a scene. The tipping point is that I can let go of the quest for perfection. We know this tipping point is different for every writer. But the discipline of revision, at least for me, requires multiple readings and endless changes at micro and structural levels. So I finish projects and yet, they remain unfinished because . . .

Nothing is perfect. Not my writing. Not me. I can celebrate what I write in a very private moment that says “Aha! That’s it! Exactly!” A turn of a phrase. An insight into a character. A scene that builds seamlessly on theme. A fierce emotion that emerges out of the simplest of words. But we writers know how quickly that moment fades. For nothing is perfect.

It is enough that we write to create that moment — for ourselves and our readers. We may write our fictions for a variety of purposes — to entertain, to amuse, to escape, to persuade, or to teach. Our words celebrate our characters, their conflicts, their imperfections, and their quests. In doing so, we persevere. We challenge our own imperfections, and we continue our personal quests.

Sometimes we do not know why we write. In our darkest moments, in the midst of writer’s block, despite the nastiest of self-doubt, we write.

Perhaps for us all, writing is a form of meditation. And that brings us full circle back to the essence of wabi-sabi, this philosophy influenced by Buddhism.

As we begin Round One of ROW80, this year, I can accept imperfection and incompleteness. For these words, this day, I can write my stories. I am accountable. My hope is that even for a moment, this idea of wabi-sabi will help you trounce the devils of perfection, that you will go forth into 2014 to celebrate your own writing voice.

Today's post is a guest post I wrote for A Round of Words for 80 Days, an online community of writers led by Kait Nolan. We set weekly goals and report progress throughout the 'round' of 80 days. Join us! The meme comes from Vicki, my quilting buddy.

Richard R. Powell, Wabi-Sabi Simple (Adams Media, 2004). Quoted in Wikipedia.


  1. You couldn't be more right! I started writing about 70 years ago, and strove way too hard for perfection. One biography published and hundreds of newspaper stories. Four novels begun, not a single one finished. I ought to back off and settle for some imperfection. Nothing I ever wrote is perfect!

  2. I sure relate to this. Not in writing, but in other parts of my life. I'm actually glad about that. It gives. Something to look forward to, to strive toward, and a reason to simply let go sometimes.