How to know when the writing is done

I started writing about good writing yesterday simply because it was on my mind — I’m neck-deep in three different stories right now, with two more on the sidelines, as I try to finish a story collection. But as soon as I posted it, I started thinking of a related discussion: How to know when the writing is done.

That’s a far harder question to answer, I think, because while good or bad is a judgment call, “finished” is more absolute, and it has less to do with quality than with completion. Knowing when your story is good is a matter of taste; knowing when it’s done is a matter of process.

We all struggle with our work, drafting and revising and editing and reading and re-reading and begging friends to read . . . . For many of us, this revision process becomes an obsession, even — ironically — a means of procrastinating. Most of us are doing this with a purpose beyond putting words on paper: we feel we have something important to say, some great story the world wants to hear, and our goal, eventually, is to share that vision with everyone. Yet when it comes time to actually wrap up a story and send it out into the universe, many of us find it difficult to let go.

This is mostly tied to the question of whether our work is good, I think. A long while ago, I had exactly this conversation with Ryan Werner, who noted his own concerns with his work: “I get to draft four or five and then freeze up, because I’ve always got a vision that I don’t want to betray.” This freeze is a particularly malicious form of writers block, really, in which we don’t realize we’re blocked because we’re still doing the work. We revise, and we revise, and we tell ourselves this is what writing is all about — and it is — but then we fall into it, determined that if that revision made that sentence perfect, then this revision will help the next sentence, and when all the sentences are perfect we’ll revise to make sure they gel perfectly, and then we’ll recheck everything, and question ourselves, and change a word….

We’re not alone. F. Scott Fitzgerald never met a sentence he couldn’t revise, and he was notorious for frustrating his editors with major revisions — both substantial and substantive — at the last minute. He’d send back galleys that showed more red ink than blue. He’d tear out whole pages, rewrite chapters. It never ended.

This sort of perpetual revision, the pursuit of perfection, is absurdly common, really. I say absurd because writers have been suffering from it openly for so long you’d think we’d have found a way to prevent it by now. But we haven’t — I often suffer from the same anxiety.

It is surmountable, though. Getting over it is like getting over writers block, only backward. With writers block you have to grab on and stick with the writing, no matter how rough it gets or where it leads you. But with this perpetual revision thing, the only solution is to let go and send it out, no matter how rough it is or where it winds up. It’s a hard thing to do, because as much as rejection frustrates me, I sometimes suffer an even greater fear that my bad writing will get accepted. My story “The Simple Things,” or “Coffee, Black,” or “Counting Telephone Poles” — all were relatively well received when I published them, but I look at them now and see dozens and dozens of changes I want to make. Yet they’re in print, and sometimes I wonder if I’ve “betrayed my vision.”

Then I pick up the 1993 anthology The Gulf Coast Collection of Stories and Poems, a one-off collection published by the University of Southern Alabama. It contains Tom Franklin’s “Rise,” an early draft of a story that later appeared as “Blue Horses” in Franklin’s own collection, Poachers. The difference between those drafts is phenomenal. Franklin grew a lot as a writer in the six years between “Rise” and “Blue Horses.” Yet, there they both are, in print — published. The same thing happened between the version of Franklin’s award-winning novella, “Poachers,” that appeared in Texas Monthly and the one that appeared in the book.

And then I remember that Raymond Carver also frequently revised his published work for later collections, though to be fair, he was usually trying to undo the changes Gordon Lish had imposed, trying to revert to Carver’s own vision. Not long ago, Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, released an early, pre-Lish draft of Carver’s famous “What we Talk About When We Talk About Love”; the early version ran in the New Yorker, and reading it in the context of the more famous version, it is difficult to decide which draft is better — which draft is the “good” draft.

I began to realize that we are almost guaranteed to betray our vision, in some sense, because if we’re worth a damn as writers we’ll keep working on our vision, and what we expect out of our work will become more refined and of a higher quality as we progress. Which means anything we publish now is already doomed to fall below our future standards. By that account, then, it doesn’t seem to matter much if it falls even below our standards now. Sure, we want to publish the best we’re capable of, but I think we need to focus on publishing the best we’re capable of publishing, not the best we’re capable of writing and certainly not the best we can dream up in our heads. Which means, if it’s accepted for publication somewhere, then we have to say, good enough for now. But that can’t happen until we let go and send the work out into the world.

It’s an easy lesson to learn, but it’s a hard one to stick to. Believe me.

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One thought on “How to know when the writing is done

  1. I have serious issues with both, “knowing when it’s good” and “knowing when it’s done”. I’ve finished stories and thought they were “good”, then had friends read them and point out all the things that are wrong. Once they’ve pointed out the wrong things, I see them too and wonder how the hell I didn’t see it before. I then knew I could never trust myself to judge my own work. My very first MS, I completed and was proud of. It took me a year to write. I put it down for another year, went back and revised it until I was completely numb. Went back a few months later and found that it still blew, so I deleted it.

    I have one completed MS, which I plan to tear apart and put back together because I now see all the holes in the plot. But I have at least four which I’m well over 200 pages into, but haven’t finished them, because I don’t know where to stop. I love writing and creating, but sometimes it feels like a disease, like alcoholism, or some other ism floating around out there.

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