Calling forth our Black Swans

I watched the film Black Swan the other night feeling fascinated, horrified, and most of all empathetic. Natalie Portman (in some of the best acting I've seen ever, let alone all year) plays a ballerina obsessed with perfection. And when asked to portray a role in Swan Lake that embodies both the pure and delicate white swan and the seductive and dangerous black swan, she runs into problems. Her fragile personality and years of hardcore training (and mommy issues) have made her the perfect white swan, but she struggles when she's forced to let go of that and embrace the freedom and sultry imperfection of the black swan.

Well, that puts it lightly. In the film, she basically starts losing her mind, but that's all I'm gonna say about the film's plot. 

The point is, the main theme of Black Swan, apart from the whole divided nature thing, seems to be centered on dangers of perfectionism, and that is what really struck a chord with me, and I think it does with anyone who pursues any kind of art, be it ballet or painting or writing. 

Writers are constantly climbing a mountain of self-improvement. We're told "never use adverbs." And "never, ever use passive voice, except when you must use it." Or "for the love of god, stop using so many adjectives and dialogue tags!" And that's only the beginning. Hell, I say these things all the time as an editor, and over the years I've worked to hone my own writing in a similar manner. But it is possible to go too far in the other direction by scrubbing the humanity completely out of your work. 

But we follow these "rules" because, like Portman's character, we "want to be perfect." We're force-fed the belief that perfection equals success. And if we follow all these rules and lessons, our work can be pretty damn close to perfect. At least on a technical level. The problem with technical perfection is that it leaves little room for art. Truly beautiful art is not sterile, at least in my humble opinion. While it's fun to read about robots,  it's not so much fun to read the writing of a robot.

I found myself ruminating on my work as I pondered the movie. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with clean technique. Portman could never have become the Black Swan without the prodigious skill that made her the perfect white swan. But there is also something to be said for letting go. To stop obsessing over every little step (or adverb and adjective as the case may be). Sometimes you need to get dirty to tell the most compelling story you can. People are seduced more often by the emotion you put into a story than anything else. How else to explain the amazing success of writers who, technically at least, aren't very good? They write with full abandon and belief, and I truly believe that is the most important thing we can do. While there is beauty in perfection, there is nothing about it that tugs at our heartstrings.

And that's what the arts are really about. To make people feel something and to remember it.

Watch this movie and tell me if you weren't physically moved when Portman donned that gorgeous black costume and danced from the depths of her soul, when the strings that bound her to her "white" self were finally severed, allowing her to breathe and spread her wings. That is when we saw her true beauty burst forth. Tell me if you remember any of her dancing before that moment. 

That's how I want to write and that's what I like to read.

And really, you should see this movie. 

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