With apologies to my mother (“Turkeys are done, young lady; people are finished”), I pose that question with sincerity, for the writer and editor in me has struggled with it for decades. When is a piece of writing or an editing job actually complete and ready to go out the door? When is “enough” really enough or “good” really good enough? Presuming that any piece of writing short of Shakespearean verse can always be made better, how does a writer or editor decide when to put a last polish on the work, hit the final save, and send the piece flying off to her agent or publisher?
I, for one, usually take the easy way out and let the clock or the calendar make the call for me. I’ll work myself to a frazzle, burning the midnight oil and an ever-dwindling supply of brain cells until I’m simply out of time and smack-dab up against a non-negotiable deadline. For good or ill, I’ve found this approach actually works with many kinds of writing and editing jobs, though it is definitely a crazy-making way to make a living!
Still, I am convinced that other writers and editors manage to pace themselves with more grace and good sense than I exhibit. How do they do it? And just how do they know when to stop? This must be a particular concern for poets, novelists, and playwrights, as well as their editors—all those folks who are brave enough to tackle anything that doesn’t come with a built-in deadline. When do these writers and editors really know that what they’ve done is perfectly fine, if not finally perfect? And how do they let go of that old bugaboo, “perfection,” which can stand in the way of so much that is so good?
Years ago, a friend offered an insight that I’ve recalled more than once in the intervening decades. I was fresh out of college, English degree in hand, and she asked me why I didn’t plan to write a novel. I replied that there really was no point, since I certainly couldn’t produce anything a tenth, a hundredth, a thousandth as good as the work of Henry James, my idol in those idyllic days. “But why in the world does it have to be that good?” she queried. I was at a loss for words and thoroughly flummoxed: I’d never looked at it that way. I’d always figured something less than perfect was less than worthy, as if there were not myriad wonderful and valuable works hovering somewhere between my sophomoric literary efforts and Portrait of a Lady. And I have to think that far too many other writers and editors have, like me, often let the perfect overwhelm the possible, to paraphrase an old adage.
Perhaps, in the end, there really is no “being done.” Maybe the best we can do is to forge on and refuse to permit a futile quest for perfection keep us from letting our talents shine and our words flow. And maybe, just maybe, that’s not a bad goal after all.
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