Last time, I wrote a posting concerning the question of when a writer knows they’re finished. I don’t mean when their career is finished. That’s easy. Nobody calls you. I mean, how does a writer know when whatever it is they’re working on – be it a posting, or a screenplay, or the tablet-ready version of the Ten Commandments – is finally and unequivocally done?
I had intended to include the following observation at the end of that posting, entitled, “When Are You Finished?”, but it got too long and, rather than going back the next day, as I did with my posting about our trip to San Francisco. and dividing the posting into manageable halves, resulting in, as it did with the over-long San Francisco posting, my re-reading the first half and making a bunch of changes, suggesting that I thought I was finished, but I apparently wasn’t – I held back adding this section, reserving it for another day.
I know myself. I would have rewritten that first section, and probably never gotten to the new stuff. So I did a good thing. I’m sure that that first section is just fine. Though now that I think of it, since, at this writing, I have scheduled that first section but have not yet published it, I may go back and take one more look.
“Stop me, before I re-write again!”
In the big picture, it matters not a whit if my posting has been optimally actualized. I am not sure I would realize it if it were. As I mentioned last time, even if I spent forever on a single posting, the day after forever, were I to go back to it, I would yet again find ways of making it better, “perfection”, if it, in fact, exists, always elusively out of my reach.
This leads me to the larger issue (the one I was going to attach to the previous posting, and then, wisely, didn’t.) I will personalize it – because that’s what I do – but I am banking on its wider reverberations.
I’m in college. I have a paper to write. This is before computers, but after typewriters – though not after electric typewriters. These were the kind of typewriters, which, if you made a “typo”, you were totally up the creek. This was better than writing with a pencil, though not entirely better, because at least pencils had erasers. The work was faster with the typewriter, unless you made a mistake, in which case, it was slower. It was around then.
What we did in those days when we had a paper to write was we went to the library. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, a library is Google with shelves. You went there to look things up.
As I mentioned elsewhere, I would always get stomachaches in libraries. My awareness of the enormous amount of knowledge housed in such facilities, as compared to the enormous lack of knowledge housed in my brain, left me doubled over with anxiety-triggered cramps. (That, and the fear of farting in a very quiet building.)
I pick out some books covering the subject of my paper, an essay on, say, “The Proximate Causes of World War Two.” I’d select three of four books – the number determined by my available time, and how many the library allowed you to check out. To get an overview on the subject, I would also consult the Encyclopedia Britannica , the Wikipedia of its day, though it’s compiled by experts, rather than I-have-no-idea-who, with time on their hands.
When I think I have enough information, I go home.
I write the paper – thesis, argument with examples, conclusion – it’s done. And it’s perfect.
Really? Three of four books, and I nailed “The Proximate Causes Of World War Two”? I don’t think so. Though I honestly thought so at the time.
Yessir. “Mr. ‘three-or-four-books’ Expert Man”, writing the definitive paper on “The Proximate Causes of World War Two.” (Though I was clearly smarter back then. You could “waterboard” me today, and I could not tell you what “proximate” means.)
As previously acknowledged, I don’t matter, meaning, my imperfect college paper doesn’t matter any more than my imperfect postings matter. But what about the people who write papers, or reports, that have a serious impact on our lives? How many books do those guys take home? And which ones did they, for one reason or another, overlook?
Sometimes, the selectivity is deliberate.
“I found fifty sources insisting that Iraq is stockpiling ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction.’”
“How many sources are there?”
“Did you read them all?”
“Thousands? Are you kidding me? ”
“Fifty isn’t that many sources, when you’re talking about thousands.”
“But all fifty sources agree that Iraq is stockpiling ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction.’”
“Yeah, but we don’t know what the other ones say.”
“Hey, do you want to invade the place, or don’t you?”
Selective research is not recommended, if you wish to avoid bombing a country unnecessarily. But sometimes, there is no “Dark Purpose” involved when you say “That’s it.” Sometimes, it’s just human nature.
When he worked on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In with Lorne Michaels, my brother wrote a humorous vignette depicting Noah Webster who, after twenty-seven years of painstaking effort, had finally completed compiling his now-famous “Webster’s Dictionary.” Every word in the English language lay between those covers. To his relief and satisfaction, Webster was finally done.
There’s a knock on his door. Webster answers it. Standing there, is a man holding a leash, constraining some clearly agitated, off-camera animal. It’s a “flonk.” The only one of its kind in existence. The man demands that Webster include the “flonk” in his dictionary. Webster is understandably upset by this turn of events, and the arduous work the inclusion would entail. He clearly has to do something. But what?
“This is only one in existence, you say?”
“The only one in existence.”
After a moment’s consideration, Webster has his answer.
You think you’re finished after twenty-seven years of word wrangling, then somebody shows up with a “flonk.” “Kill it!” seems to be the reasonable way to go. If they don’t, though only Webster and the “flonk” owner would be aware of it, the famous dictionary would be, technically, not finished. There’s a word that’s been left out.
Scientific theories, medical breakthroughs, heinous crimes where the evidence points to one suspect and they stop looking for anybody else. Yes, at some point, the time comes when a have to say, “That’s a wrap.”
But what if you stop too soon, say, one step before the truth? The decision is understandable. You may be content with what you’ve found, or you may have simply run out of gas.
But are you really finished?
I think I’ll stop there.
Though I may come back to it later.