When is a story–or any creative endeavor, for that matter–truly “finished”? When can you say that there is nothing else you can do that could possibly make a piece any better? This is a question I’ve often pondered, but most recently, it was a question that came to mind after I realized I had spent nearly two hours rewriting a half-dozen lines of dialogue. In the end, they didn’t look all that different than they had when I finished composing the very first draft of the story, although the lines had been reworked countless times as I tried to strike the perfect balance between advancing the narrative and revealing subtle details about the characters themselves.
I remember reading an interview with John Irving once where he commented that he had only written a handful of short stories he truly considered “finished.” I can relate. There have been plenty of times when I have put a story aside for months or even years, and when I pick it up to reread it, I feel the urge to tweak a sentence here or a paragraph there. And these were stories that I thought were “done.” Maybe I’m OCD!
This is also one of the reasons I both love and hate writing. I’m the type of person who can usually bang out the first draft of something pretty quickly, and when I do, I get the proverbial “high” that goes along with most creative endeavors. Yet editing and rewriting–although I know they are essential to creating quality material–are the most arduous elements of this process. At times I almost dread starting a piece (even when I’m truly excited about the idea) because I know that at some point, I’m going to be spending countless hours removing and then re-inserting commas, changing bits of dialogue, reworking descriptions, and all the other things that go into the revision process. I think is was Flannery O’Connor who said that she knew a story was finished when, after looking at it for the umpteenth time, she said to herself, “Oh, to hell with it!” I know precisely how she feels.