It’s perhaps a corollary of Dorothy Parker’s famous – and widely shared – sentiment “I hate writing, I love having written” that writers are often indecently eager to finish whatever they’re writing.
That haste makes intuitive sense in the case of first drafts. We’re often racing our own skepticism – can I write this, is it worth anything? – in those early stages, praying to get to the end before our doubts overtake us. There’s an all or nothing feeling to first drafts; if we finish them we feel we have something, however flawed, to build on; but if we stop before the end, it’s not clear we have anything at all.
But of course finishing a first draft isn’t the end of the process for most writers. It’s not even the beginning of the end, so much as the end of the beginning. But at least Churchill (who I’m paraphrasing here) knew the end of World War II when he saw it! The difficulty for writers is that it’s not always clear to us when revision is finished, an unease which underlies a question I’m often asked in classes and after readings: “How do you know a story or novel is done?” It’s a question posed with the implicit, plaintive plea, “When can I finally stop writing and start having written?”
One source of this uncertainty lies in our sense that perfection, the purported object of revision, is an ever receding goal. Many of us could keep polishing our prose forever even if, we suspect, with ever diminishing returns. There’s a Sisyphean quality to the task (not to mention a whiff of indulgence) that we’re rightly wary of. A common response of established writers to this issue is to offer something like “I knew I was done when I was bored or exhausted with the story,” but this has always seemed a faintly unsatisfactory answer to me. We want to know when the story is done, not when its writer is done in. Boredom or exhaustion seem like dispiriting conclusions for an artistic endeavor, even if we do all feel moments of tedium or tiredness in the face of our own work. For my own part, I try to see those moments not as end points, so much as pauses. Exhaustion is temporary. We rest, we go on. And boredom, why boredom – as the parent of any young child knows – is the well-spring of creativity. When a child feels bored, he or she makes up a game, digs out a long-neglected toy, gets into some mischief (albeit after some whining; our writerly are-we-done-yet? finds an obvious echo in the child’s are-we-there-yet?) Boredom with ourselves, our drafts, is inevitable, but by these lights it’s also to be welcomed, or at least out-lasted. That very boredom, so long as we don’t misinterpret it as the end, will likely give way to some new inspiration about our work, some new discovery, some new understanding.
And this suggests a conception of revision that offers a more satisfying outcome to the process. If we see revision as a process of perfection it’s never ending: we can always get a tiny bit closer, and then a tiny bit closer still. It’s the writerly equivalent of Zeno’s paradox. But if revision is a process of discovery and understanding, its end is the moment when we understand what our story means, even why we wrote it in the first place.
One final thought. What is it that inclines us to mistake perfection for discovery as the goal of revision? There are probably many culprits – our earliest childhood training in revision (fixing typos, correcting grammar and punctuation) has a “tidy your room” anality to it – but the writing workshop may also bear some responsibility here. On the one hand the workshop is often accused of fetishizing revision – what is workshop after all but a demand for revision? – but it may also confound it. Those demands are often conflicting, of course, which can be paralyzing in itself, but the more profound conflict between workshop and revision may lie in one of the common tenets of workshop discussions: to engage and judge a story on its own terms in light of its author’s intentions. This is surely a respectful and pragmatic strategy, not to say a humane one (I practice it myself, indeed). It hardly serves a writer aiming for tragedy to be told his work needs more jokes, or if it does the writer will be more apt to take the advice if his larger tragic vision is acknowledged first. And yet, the workshop itself is here trading in a convenient fiction, that the writer of an early draft knows what he or she intends. If we accept that premise, there’s nothing to be discovered here. We know what we mean, what we want the story to do, and the challenge is only to prefect that intention. But more honestly, we might admit that we don’t always know what our own stories mean, or why we write them, certainly not in their early drafts. We have inklings, hypotheses, but we write to sharpen them, test them, to discover what’s out there (or perhaps in here). The reason we love having written is because it means finally understanding what we’ve been doing.