Today, I’m at the cafe. Storms have passed through the area the last few days and so the air is clear and everything smells fresh. I see familiar faces, hear familiar conversations.
Earlier, I ran into a writer I know who is working on a murder mystery. When last I ran into our plucky heroine, she had finished up her first draft and made contact with a local mystery writer’s group. It’s been about a year since I’ve had an update from her but I was not surprised when she said that she was still plugging away on her third draft.
“What’s holding you up?” I asked.
“I’m striving for perfection,” she said with a dramatic shrug.
“Fuck that,” I replied. “Finish that sucker and get it out there. More importantly, get on to the next book.”
Her face lit up and she smiled from ear to ear.
“You know, I have been thinking about another book.”
“Then tie up the lose ends on the first one and get cracking!” I told her. “Take it from me, editing a book is like petting a kitten. It’s fun because the kitten purrs, but eventually wear all the fur off and then no one will want to play with it.”
Having whittled several novels down to stubby nubs, I have a pretty good sense of over-editing, but there is a bigger truth to be found in moving on: a writer is more likely to reach “perfection” by writing their next novel than they are are in fiddling with one they’ve already finished.
I also think that perfection is basically impossible. A writer writes. Craft improves over time. The books get better. They may even become great.
However, because books take a long time to write and life does not move at a novel-making pace, a writer is subject to many forces and experiences which can change the shape of the work. Even if one sits at the same table every day and writes during the same appointed hours, there are variables in flux. The writer changes and so the work also changes.
For example, if you write every day for three months, you will improve as a writer. As a result, you will likely find flaws in what you wrote three months before. You may be embarrassed by it. You may even hate it. This is natural, but if you are to make any forward progress in writing you must accept the fact that the work will always look incomplete because you are never going to be complete as a writer.
Your role is to shape the story for consistency and then let it go. After all, you have more books to write. Speaking of which…
“Are you writing?” she asked.
“No, I’m not,” I said.
“Well, you are so busy I can see why.”
It’s a courteous reply, but we both know this is a lie. We also know that the claim of not writing is in fact a lie as well.
It’s true that I’ve been busy, but this has never stopped me from writing before. In fact, I’ve often been more productive as a writer when I’m busy because I don’t have time for navel-gazing. There is 30 minutes here or 60 minutes there. There is butt-in-chair-fingers-on-keys-now-go!
Yet even without the writing, there is no escaping the stories. There is no end of first lines. The walls of the mind are paper-thin and I can hear the dialogue going on in other rooms. I can’t help wondering how people came to be in the places they are or about the history of the places themselves.
When you are a writer, there is no way you cannot be writing. You are always writing.
And so I must be writing… Perhaps it’s about time I stopped fiddling with this part of the story and get on to writing the next.