Teresa Sundmark: In Defense of Blurriness

Teresa Sundmark
A while
back, a photographer friend of mine in Colorado posted a few photos he’d taken
of an elk he’d come across while hiking. Two of the photos were beautifully composed.
Stock-photography ready, you could say, with the sunlight at just the right
angle and the elk holding its majestic head high for the perfect profile shot. The
third photo was not perfect.  The elk was
smaller in the frame—not zoomed-in—and its head was turned and lowered so that
its antlers weren’t entirely in the picture. You could see that it was standing
on a rocky hillside, looking a little unbalanced. The background was blurry. But
there was something striking about the less-than-perfect photo. When I looked
at it, I felt like I was seeing an elk, not just a picture of an elk.
Many times
in Alaska I’ve had wildlife encounters that were less than perfect. Once I saw
a wolverine in the meadow in front of my house and by the time I figured out
what it was, it had already disappeared into the trees. A few times I’ve been out
hiking and seen the furry back end of a bear as it scurried away.  On my way to Anchorage a few summers ago, a
black wolf made a quick appearance on the side of the road. Again, I saw it
just long enough to identify what I was seeing before it slipped into the dense
With each
of those wildlife viewings I was left wanting more—more time to view the
beauty, the behavior, the being of
each animal—as if more time or a better view would make the experience more
real or more satisfying.  But part of the
thrill of those sightings was that I got a glimpse of something wild—something
I had no intention or expectation of seeing in the first place.
When I
mentioned to my friend that the less professional-looking photo was my favorite
of the three he posted, his response was to apologize for its imperfection.
“Yeah, I’m not sure why I posted it. It’s not that good of a photo. I probably
should have thrown it out.”
But I was
glad he hadn’t tossed it.  Seeing the
imperfect photo was certainly better than never having seen it at all. And in
my opinion, the imperfect photo showed a more honest portrayal of the elk than
the others.
photographers, writers tend to be perfectionists. We want to create something that
will leave an impact. It’s common practice to delete more sentences than we
keep. We do this because we’re constantly trying to transfer what’s going on in
our brains (or our hearts) into words that will make another person understand,
and on top of that, our language may not even possess words that describe what
we remember or imagine or feel, but still it’s our job to try to find them.
It’s a lot of work and we want to get it right.
perfectionist tendencies is probably a good thing for artists and I would never
suggest that we stop scrutinizing our work. The literary world would be an
unwieldy, unpleasant place if writers didn’t strive toward greatness. But the
perfectionism that drives us can also have a dark side. It can strike before we
put words on a page. It can deceive us into thinking that what we have to say
isn’t good enough or that since we will probably never win the Pushcart Prize,
we may as well not even try to write anything meaningful.
can also cause our self-censorship to go into overdrive. It can keep us from
starting the blogs we’ve been thinking of starting or from writing the short stories,
essays or poems we’ve been ruminating on.  And once we do find the courage to write, the
fear that our work might not be perfect may keep us from sending it out into
the world for publication.
possible though, that our ideas of perfection may be completely skewed. Maybe
the perfect way to see a bear or a wolf or a wolverine is to glimpse them
scuffling off into the woods. Maybe the perfect picture of an elk is not one
that anyone would ever buy. Maybe the writing we think is a little blurry is in
fact the writing that is getting someplace real.   

Teresa Sundmark lives in Homer, Alaska. She has
an MFA in Creative Writing from UAA. Her poetry and fiction have been featured
in Cirque: A Literary Journal for
the North Pacific Rim and her essays have been syndicated
through High Country News.
Teresa works in a public library and she blogs about writing, small town life
and various other subjects at 

5 thoughts on “Teresa Sundmark: In Defense of Blurriness”

  1. This has reminded me of the book, The Half-Known World, (recommended by Deb Vanesse a while back)where the author talks about "the residual mystery of being".
    Author Robert Boswell says, of stories, "A fully known world is devoid of mysteries". And, "When the reader's experience of a story results in a world that is too fully known, the story fails(pg20).
    Thanks for this post.

  2. Thanks for this, Teresa. You nail one of the biggest balancing acts we try to perform–weaving together precision and nuance. I really appreciated this post today.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. "The Half-Known World" is a great book–thanks for mentioning it. I think it's time to pull it off the shelf again. And Christine, I think you said it more articulately than me with "weaving together precision and nuance."

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I loved this, Teresa, and it reminded me of some interviews and discussions with other writers the nature of the novel — the fact that it's a "baggy monster" (to quote Henry James) that has room for digressions, oddity, and sheer length. The size and scope lends itself to imperfections. I suppose essays that purposefully meander (my favorite kind) are the same way. Your post also made me look up the Japanese term "wabi-sabi" which includes an aesthetic that embraces "asperity" (roughness) and irregularity as well as impermanence. I hope to remember these ideas as I embark on my next hyper-self-critical revision!

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