“How do you know when you are finished with a piece of writing?”—Evie, age 10
Evie, you’ve asked a stumper. I wish I had a clear, concrete answer for you. Turn around three times, shout “Brahahahallooalloo!” and throw the paper against the wall. If it sticks there and darkens to a slightly bluish-purple shade, it’s finished. That would be handy, wouldn’t it? But alas, it’s not so simple.
There’s a famous old saying—“Art is never finished, only abandoned”—which has been attributed to various painters and poets, but it doesn’t really matter who said it first because every artist knows it’s true. For something to be really truly finished, it would have to be complete, perfect, nothing lacking anywhere, nothing more to be improved. And we’re never going to make anything that’s perfect, no matter how brilliant and talented we might be, because we’re human. When an artist says, “Okay, I’m done,” what he or she really means is, “This is the best I can do right now, and it’s time to move on”—or even, “This is a mess, but tomorrow is the deadline and and so it’s going to be done whether I like it or not!”
We write something, we set it aside and come back with fresh eyes, we revise it, we correct the mistakes, we give it to other people to read and let us know how they think we can make it better, and then we revise again, sometimes many times. I know a poet who fiddles with a single poem for a year before she’s ready to call it done. I took several years to revise both The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic and Henry and the Chalk Dragon. If I took another ten years to revise them, I’m sure they would turn out even better. But if I waited that long, why not take another 10 years after that, and then another 20 . . .? Would I ever finish anything? Would anyone ever get to read what I wrote?
Usually if I start changing the same things over and over again, or if I have looked at this piece of writing so much and so long that I loathe the very sight of it, I know it’s time to stop and let it be whatever it is. Everything I write helps me write something better next time.
It’s a little like blowing soap bubbles with a bubble wand. Sure, I can blow quickly and carelessly and send hundreds of tiny spheres cascading from my wand in all directions. But sometimes I want to go slow and steady, measuring my breath so the bubble is as big and beautiful as possible before it suddenly breaks free. And yes, inevitably it’s going to go splat on the pavement or pop on a blade of grass. But before it does, it will shimmer in the air awhile, all wobbly and misshapen and imperfect and fragile. And maybe someone else will see a glint of light in its surface and be delighted by it. And maybe a breeze will catch it and it will soar higher and farther than I ever imagined it would. Who knows? There are many things about that bubble and its path through the sky that I am not skillful enough to control. Yet each bubble is a little surprise, a little miracle. I get to blow a floating, silvery mirror-ball out of soap. Who cares if it wobbles a bit as it flies?
It’s the same with writing, or any art. You do your best, and you let it go.
And then you blow another bubble.
Jennifer answers kids’ and parents’ questions in her e-newsletter, which also includes creative prompts, news about upcoming writing classes and events, recommended reading and family resources, free coloring pages, and more. You can subscribe at her website here: www.jennifertrafton.com