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  • Writer's pictureLex Enrico Santí, LCSW, MFA

Perfection is an Illooooosssion

Letter from the Editor, Winter 2008 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal

”DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT—NOTHINGS PERFECT!” I can hear Ilya Holmes’ father calling to us, as we were banging up the racecar set, while he was on the porch with a cigarette stroking his salt and pepper beard. Ilya had a thing about his racecar set and making the “perfect” crash. We’d roll that thing for hours. I always had the yellow car with the blue stripe and Ilya had the speed racer-like red car. He had shaggy black hair and was always brooding over the cars hitting each other at just the right moment, right over the steel mill, a click away from the bridge. We’d start going opposite ways. I’d press my clicker and speed up, slow down and finally we’d meet. Sometimes it was before the bridge, other times it was down by the railroad station, which probably meant I got distracted by Ilya’s sister who was a year older and was always smiling at me. Inevitably Ilya would shout out, “No, we didn’t do it perfect! Gosh!” Then he’d reach over, after hanging his head over his knee, his arms delicately folded on this green cords, gripping the remote control, his teeth clenched and take both of our cars back to the starting block by the abandoned warehouse. “Now this time, we do it perfect!” It was usually at this point that his father stuck his head in (usually the beard seemed to come in first) from the porch and would say, “Ilya, I told you, there’s nothing perfect!” We just played on.

When a journal receives your story we will admit to looking for initial weaknesses. The first three pages are crucial, I can’t say this enough. Sometimes I think I should just read after page three, I’d have a much easier time getting through stories. If you don’t really have a tight, clean first three pages—making them as perfect as you can—then it’s just not going to fly. Ever hear someone tell you about a movie that had, “a really horrible first thirty minutes?” but that you should, “watch it anyway because it is—totally—worth your $12.95.” Uhh-huh, yeah, right. I’ve been working on a house lately. Plumbing, masonry, woodworking, the whole bit. Tough stuff. Got blood blisters on my hands, okay, maybe just one blood blister on my thumb. As I would work on something I kept on hearing Ilya’s voice that said, “Let’s do it perfect, Alexis” and really, anyone who has ever laid tile on a floor knows that they’d like to do it perfect, but Ilya’s father is needed in those moments to say, “There is no perfect way, drop it!” Can you really do a perfect caulking job? Drive a nail in a perfect way? Saw a perfect cut? Well, no, you can’t. And there really isn’t anyway—we can only strive for the illusion of perfection. My mentor Richard Bausch told me a story about how after he wrote one of his books a critic saw that he had used the wrong word. Like one of those hung and hang things, lay and lie things. His editor, agent and publisher never caught it and he catches flack from this critic. Well he was feeling about an inch big when he went to a conference. In walks E.L. Doctrow (who just told us he’d be giving us an interview in the next 9 months) and that’s one of Bausch’s idols and they get to talking and Bausch spills his guts, tells him what happened. Bausch, embarrassed as hell, turns to look Doctrow to take his punishment—because after all, Doctrow never wrote a sentence that wasn’t perfect, in his mind—and Doctrow just goes, “Ahh, Richard, perfection is an illooosion.” We can’t get it perfect, we strive for it, have it as a goal in our mind, but with millions of word combinations, choices and the matters of your imperfect mind and the art of transposing the artistic magic of a story in your mind into a medium as bizarre as words and written words and written English words, at that, well, perfection doesn’t exist. All you can do, my fellow short story writers, is try to get the first three or four pages as clean as possible. Have a good story going. Get our interest. We’ll forgive all sorts of goofs in the pages after those, shucks, I’ll work on your story with you if you! In fact this story, "Shooting the Swans" by, was the first story ever submitted to Our Stories and I personally reworked it with Jackson at least five times before it was ready. That’s dedication. Don’t save your best material for the last act. Hit us with it—try to get those racecars to meet on the bridge of life—and have ‘em ram beautifully as the trestles are specked with the yellow and red embers of plastic and sparks from below, as they meet front end to front end and they are tossed, spinning up into the air in front of two children in a large cathedral of childhood and perhaps Ilya will shout out, “Yes, Alexis that was perfect!” and his cute sister will walk by and wink, saying, “that was so cool!” and his father will poke his head out from the porch and say, “Nothings perfect, but damn that was a great illooosion.”

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