"Are we there yet?"
Tomorrow Paula and I are traveling to Cincinnati for the first-ever workshop of the opera for "Lincoln in the Bardo,” written by Missy Mazzoli, with libretto by Royce Vavrek. The workshop culminates in a public performance of excerpts on Sunday, November 12.
Should be fun and I’ll keep you all posted.
Thank you for all that is Story Club. I write non-fiction and SC has been so much more applicable to my writing work than I could have ever imagined!
Here's my question. It's about editing:
When do you know that a piece is really done?
I've been editing a non-fiction book manuscript for about a year now. I have thought I was nearly done many times. I've been hoping to be able to read through the whole thing without wanting to make changes. And that's not happening.
This book project has taught me a lot, and I'm not complaining.
It's in what I think is that "almost there but no cigar" state.
The kind of changes that I've been needing to make lately are not simply word substitutions or slight reorganization of sentences or paragraphs.
Lately, I've really just been tracking the energy of the writing itself. So I'm paying attention to wherever there are "sags" in the energy. And I've become much more sensitive to where there are even slight hiccups in this energy flow. I am much more attuned to my intuition about where something is needing attention.
I suppose the good thing is that I do get a strong feeling in my gut when I've found a solution for a passage that works. So that I do trust.
I guess I'm asking for some sign that I am on the right track because I'm starting to worry that this could go on for many years. My agent read an earlier draft and we discussed it and now I've been working through it far longer than I anticipated.
Any words of advice for me?
PS: I know you've written us before about when something is "done"—about never being done, just abandoned and the usefulness of deadlines, etc. but I worry I'm chasing an impossible dream of perfection.
And I'm afraid that I have no worthy project to take up after this one so in some ways I dread it being done. And dread it not living up to what some part of me believes it could be.
Wow, this is a really sage question, and I know that because my honest answer is, “I know, right?”
I mean, seriously: so many times, at events, I’ll get a question, from someone who is clearly a committed, if somewhat tormented, writer, and the correct response would be: “In the framing of that question, you’ve identified what is the essence of the whole practice; the ‘answer’ to which, particularized to you, is going to be the key to your uniqueness.”
And then, if I was being a real smart-aleck, I might add, “So, yes: get out of here and go figure that out.”
Other such questions:
“How does one balance ‘serious’ and ‘funny?’
“How does it feel when you’ve overworked a story?”
“How do you learn to trust your ear?”
These questions, and others, have the ring of truth about them, because they’ve clearly come only after a good deal of investigation. The asker has already worked her way to the essence of the thing, and the only valid answer, from where I stand (up at the podium, in my wrinkled on-the-road suit) is some version of: “In your flavor/as you wish/that remains to be seen.”
So, right: good question.
In this case, dear questioner, if you were sitting here across from me, I’d want to ask a few questions of my own:
Has the agent read this draft, or some portion of it? If so, how did she feel about it? (If not, might she be willing, and would this be helpful to you, do you think?) It could be that a positive reaction from her might help you understand how you’ve improved the book in terms of its communicativeness, and this, in turn, might teach you something about what “done” means for you, in the real world.
Are there sections you’ve worked on that now, and somewhat consistently, feel “done?” (Here, we’re guarding against the possibility that you are just endlessly changing things and nothing is congealing/cohering). (Is the Rubik’s Cube getting closer to having all of its color’s lined up, or is it just in different states of randomness?)
For me, the way it works is something like this.
Parts of the text will start to feel solid and if I’m still tweaking these parts, the tweaks are getting more and more minor – more cosmetic.
I’ll feel, at the end of a section or chapter, propelled out to the next part or chapter, with a pretty nice sense of anticipation – I feel like I’ve been “set up” for something to happen next. (This is also true of non-fiction, albeit in a slightly different flavor).
I can go away from the text for awhile and when I come back, and re-read, I’m pleasantly surprised, and sucked in (and have few changes).
Having some “finished” sections, the unfinished ones become more apparent. It’s like hearing a great song on an album and then the next one sounds dull in comparison. (No panic, then – just an aspiration/determination to bring that next “song” up to the level of the first.)
I start to get genuinely excited about showing the project to someone. (We have to be careful with this one, because this feeling usually comes before it should. So this is something we want to try to learn to recognize, with practice: the difference between the premature version of this feeling and the “true” one.
Once, years ago, in Rochester, I took a songwriting seminar from this writer name Michael Smith, who wrote a beautiful song called “The Dutchman” (here’s the legendary Steve Goodman version of the song), and Smith’s advice was that, when you first record a song, listen to it, and then right away put on something from one of your heroes. Dylan was one of his. (When he said this, a groan went up in the room.) His point was, I think, that this a good way to pull oneself out of that “I just did this and feel delighted about it, because I did it!” zone and into the zone that is more like the real world, in that “what we did” is going to be heard (or read) in a more complicated setting, out there among all the other works of art – so we should try to assess it that way ourselves, if possible. And then (the idea is) if it falls short, some improvements might occur to us.
Finally, I often think of a quote I saw when visiting Rowan Oak, the Faulkner House in Oxford, Mississippi. I can’t find it on-line anywhere but the gist of it was (in a Southern accent, please): “Often, when I’ve finished a novel, ways occur to me in which it might be made better – but then a new idea occurs to me, and I find myself racing after it….”
That is a really bad version of what he said, but it is, for me (obsessive that I am) a useful antidote to my perfectionism. There are (there really are) many more books with our name on them (with your name on them, dear questioner) and we might see the current book as a learning experience and a stepping stone to get to those other books.
While, of course, at the same time, making this one as perfect as we can manage. 😊