“This would be a good death … but not good enough.”
— Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Leonardo da Vinci said “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” This seems true to experience on some level, but it makes me wonder how the Mona Lisa or Virgin of the Rocks might have ended up if Leonardo hadn’t abandoned them when he did. Could they have ended up better? I don’t know. Could they have ended up worse? Most definitely. So it seems, knowing when to stop is just as critical as knowing how to proceed, or having the perseverance to continue.
A dose of perfectionism can be a blessing, to fuel an unrelenting drive to press forward with one’s craft and with improvements to a piece. But there comes a time in the life of a work of art when further changes could do more harm than good. This can be so clearly experienced in drawing, especially with ink, when a single line can be so quickly regretted. But writing is no different. Perfectionism is a curse, if in pursuit of the unattainable, it drives you past this point.
Recognizing the critical moment is not always easy, but its harbinger is a law of diminishing returns. When each change begins to take more and more consideration for smaller and smaller perceptible improvements, you’re getting close. At some point you must call it good enough, at least for now, and abandon it, as Leonardo would say. Time to submit it, show it, publish it, whatever, and move on to the next piece.
Good enough is not settling. It’s recognizing when something has reached its full potential given your current perception, understanding, and skill. It’s possible you may come back to a piece later, with more experience and greater skill, and see how further improvements can be made. And as long as you see clearly what can be done, that it is an improvement, and you have the skill, time, and inclination to do it, why not? But there’s nothing wrong with letting it be too, as it was in the moment when it was last abandoned. Nothing is perfect, and “there is no exquisite beauty … without some strangeness in the proportions.” (Edgar Allan Poe)