The Writer’s Desk: On perfection

In baseball, it’s possible for a pitcher to achieve perfection.  A perfect game is one in which no batters are allowed to reach base, either via error, walk, or basehit. Every single batter is retired: twenty seven up and twenty seven down.  Perfect games are very rare at the major league level, with only twenty since major league baseball began its record-keeping.  And yet, there have been, improbably, three so far this season.  (Bear with me on this: a relevance to Mormon literature may yet emerge.)

The first took place on May 9, pitched by Oakland A’s lefthander, Dallas Braden.  When scouts talk about young pitchers, they differentiate between ‘stuff’ and ‘command.’  ‘Stuff’ refers to raw talent–how fast can this young man throw the ball, with what kind of diabolical movement.  ‘Command’ refers to control.  A pitcher with good stuff and poor command may be able to throw the ball 98 miles per hour, but with little idea where it’s going, for example. Dallas Braden epitomizes a pitcher with mediocre stuff but superior command.  His fastball tops out at 85 mph, but it  goes exactly where he wants it to go, and he changes speeds admirably.  He’s otherwise known as a fun-loving and admirable young man–still trying to solidify his position as a big leaguer, but a guy who’s known for running out on the field during rain delays and sliding on his belly on the wet grass.  May 9 was Mother’s Day, and it turns out Braden’s own mother passed away when he was a senior in high school.  He dedicates all his games to her, offering a little prayer at game’s end.

The second took place on May 29, pitched by Roy Halladay of the Philadephia Phillies, against the Florida Marlins. Dallas Braden is a marginal major leaguer who transcended his own limitations–Halladay is one of the game’s great stars, a superb pitcher with astounding stuff and command.  The Marlins were helpless against him. No inspiring family angle, no smiles from fans that the angels of the game had smiled on an estimable young man.  Just a thorough professional at the top of his craft.

The third perfect game, last night’s, was the most heart-breaking.  Detroit Tigers right hander Armando Galarraga got the first twenty six batters out, and faced Cleveland Indians pinch-hitter Jason Donald.  Donald grounded to first, and Miguel Cabrera, the first baseman, fielded it cleanly and tossed it to Galarraga, covering first (as is standard on grounders to the first baseman’s right).  Galarraga touched first, and his perfect game was complete.  But first base umpire Kevin Joyce blew the call, called Donald safe.  After the game, Joyce saw a video replay, and was inconsolable.  He apologized to the Tigers and to Galarraga, and went on national television to apologize again.

Now, a perfect game does not really represent perfection.  Presumably every time a hitter hits the ball, it represents some kind of failure on the pitcher’s fault, even if his defensive teammates field the ball cleanly and get the guy out.  A perfect game represents a sort of qualified, artificial, mortal perfection.  Within the parameters of a game, within its rules structure and history, a few pitchers in history achieve something we call perfection.

For me, the most daunting, incomprehensible, terrifying and as far as I can imagine, impossible demand of our God is captured in this scripture “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”  I can sort of imagine a God who is perfect.  What i can’t get my head around is the idea of me achieving anything close to it.  I can’t even comprehend the limited perfection devised by baseball.  I’m a writer, and everything I write is flawed beyond imagining. I re-read that play or that story or that scene even, and I’m astounded by the woodenness of the prose, the falseness of the dialogue, how forced the conflict seems and how unrealistic the characters.

Recently, I was asked to turn a short play I’d written into a short story.  Time was short; the editor of a journal I sometimes write for was desperate; my deadline was very close.  So I spent an evening working on it.  I didn’t even give it my full attention–part of my mind was, I think, engaged in watching a baseball game on the internet. I met the deadline, the editor was grateful, the piece was published.  But then I re-read it recently, and it’s not good.  It’s not good at all.  I wasn’t striving for perfection with that piece, I was going for cheap laughs, on deadline.  The story has one line, and one line only, that has some truth to it.  One moment when I wrote undistracted.

So, that’s the thing with perfection.  It’s not achievable, not really.  But the second we stop reaching for it, we lose something essential about ourselves.  We’ve been given a certain amount of stuff–we keep working for command.  And sometimes, through no fault of our own, umpires blow the call.  But we better not try to phone it in, not once, not ever, or watch out.  Line drives whistling past our heads, walks and doubles and home runs.  There have only been twenty perfect games in history, and perhaps only twenty perfect examples of great writing.  The fourth act of A Doll House.  The last act of The Eumenides.  Sometimes a Roy Halladay pitches a Hamlet, and sometimes it’s a Dallas Braden cranking out To Kill a Mockingbird.  And our Father in Heaven is perfect.  We’re his kids.  Stuff and command are in our gene pool.

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14 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: On perfection

  1. Melinda W. says:

    I’m a former perfectionist, and there is nothing pleasant about striving for perfection when you beat yourself up for every failure. For myself, I’ve decided that command to be perfect is applicable mostly to the chapter that precedes it, Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount. The chapter is about our relationships with God and other people, and perfection is following the commands in that chapter, such as praying for your enemies, and not hiding your light under a bushel. Ergo, the command to be perfect doesn’t mean writing perfectly. In fact, I couldn’t write much at all until I gave myself permission to write badly, just as long as I was writing.

    I liked your baseball metaphor. That quest for "command" is sure a lot of work. While I’m never going to write perfectly, I want to write well enough to get the story where I want it to go.

  2. Wm Morris says:

    I have to say it never occurred to me to link Mormon letters to the string of perfect/almost perfect games this season. That’s awesome, Eric.

    And to take things further: a perfect game doesn’t happen without the fielders behind the pitcher being dialed in to helping him* reach that goal and without a catcher that’s calling for the right pitches.

    *all hims so far in baseball — but there is a female Japanese knuckleballer who had her minor league debut earlier this week.

  3. Th. says:

    .

    Off topic, but there is precedent for professional women in American baseball. They just got fenced out the same time black folk were.

    Ah, the good old days.

  4. Travis says:

    I think there is beauty found in writing as a result of human imperfection. The scriptures contain some of the most beautiful language ever written and yet those are far from perfect as it was men writing. While I look towards perfection, I look towards the kind of perfection a baseball game gets. There isn’t a possibility for individual perfection but there is a possibility for collective perfection. I am reminded of this exchange from "Remember the Titans"

    Coach Boone: It’s all right. We’re in a fight. You boys are doing all that you can do. Anybody can see that. Win or lose… We gonna walk out of this stadium tonight with our heads held high. Do your best. That’s all anybody can ask for.

    Julius: No, it ain’t Coach. With all due respect, uh, you demanded more of us. You demanded perfection. Now, I ain’t saying that I’m perfect, ’cause I’m not. And I ain’t gonna never be. None of us are. But we have won every single game we have played till now. So this team is perfect. We stepped out on that field that way tonight. And, uh, if it’s all the same to you, Coach Boone, that’s how we want to leave it.

    No individual perfection but definitely collective, which doesn’t hold the same standard it seems as individual perfection.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Well, it still breaks my heart to see "the kid" not get his perfect game.

    I’d like to emphasize the "stuff" v. "command" idea–and thank you, Eric, for pointing it out. This struck home with me. I so clearly remember as a fresh-from-college-wanna-be writer thinking that I had talent with words, but really had no idea how to build a story. I had the "stuff" (I hoped), but not the "command," not the control.

    Control is learned through practice and through the serious study of well-commanded work. Of course, reading a craft book here and there can’t hurt. But in order to have command, you have to, just like the pitcher, know exactly where you are going to "throw the ball." I used to sit down to write with the expectation that the story would grow as I went along and that I’d figure out what I wanted to say along the way. That was a lack of control. Now I’m not advocating intense outlining, necessarily, but I do believe effective writing (and I’m talking artsy fartsy here) requires the writer to know from the beginning where he/she is going. Personally, I was unable to do that as a youngster, simply because I hadn’t yet gotten a firm "command" on the world, much less my insight into it.

    I’m certainly no over-acheived writer. Not by a long shot. But I do want to encourage the young writers who may share the worries I once had to stick with it. You will get published once you raise your level of command to the same level as your stuff. Find good critiquers to help you.

  6. Elizabeth E. says:

    I really have nothing salient to add to this conversation, but have to say this early Saturday morning, that I’m filled with good thoughts, reflections and insight into writing, perfection and stuff/command. It will give me a lot to think about today. Thanks for a terrific post, and thanks to the commenters as well.

  7. Travis says:

    Just a quick comment. I find mastery a better term than control. It seems more gospel centered.

  8. Jonathan Langford says:

    A comment on the context of perfection (extending Melinda W’s thought). It comes at the end of a section of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus has been extending the law of Moses, describing the heavenly law of relationships that includes but surpasses Mosaic expectations. And then we have "Be ye therefore perfect." I like to put the emphasis on "therefore," rather than the decontextualized interpretation that we Mormons so often practice. What does God’s command to be perfect mean? It means living the spirit of the law, not just the letter. Extending charity to everyone. It’s not a scripture about absence of flaw, but rather about fulness and completeness in applying gospel truths. Applied to writing, it’s not necessarily about technical perfection, but rather about telling the most powerful and compelling and truthful stories we’re capable of telling. Stretching outside our limits.

  9. Scott Parkin says:

    I think Jonathan makes a key point here. Some have argued "perfect" to indicate "complete" rather than "without flaw."

    In that sense, "be yet therefore perfect" would refer less to creating flawlessly executed stories, than to stories executed with clear intent and control over the elements of content as well as style.

    Which argues against the eccentric outsider as perfect artist and suggests that some of we boring people might still have something of value to contribute to the conversation.

    Some of us simply don’t have the raw talent of "stuff" and never will. But that doesn’t mean we still can’t produce works of real value and worth.

  10. Oh Eric, you’re so good!

  11. Katya says:

    In grammar, a perfect action is one that is finished or completed. In that sense, Christ was perfect because he completed his mission on Earth, so perhaps perfect writers and artists, by analogy, are the ones who complete their creative missions.

  12. Jonathan Langford says:

    Katya wrote: "In grammar, a perfect action is one that is finished or completed. In that sense, Christ was perfect because he completed his mission on Earth, so perhaps perfect writers and artists, by analogy, are the ones who complete their creative missions."

    Or maybe they’re the ones who are "completed" in the sense of being dead…

    Which reminds me of an old Bloom County joke. Someone asks what the difference is between a politician and a statesman. Someone else replies that a statesman is a dead politician–"and heaven knows we need more statesmen…"

  13. Katya says:

    "Or maybe they’re the ones who are "completed" in the sense of being dead…"

    Could be. But I think that’s still less pressure than worrying about being "perfect" in the sense of "flawless," which simply isn’t possible for us fallen mortals. :)

  14. Moriah Jovan says:

    I’m sure the Pharisees didn’t think Christ was anywhere near perfect…

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