Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"When Are You Finished?"

Two days ago, I wrote a post about our recent visit to Northern California. That night, it came to me that the post was too long. Even “good” can get tiresome, if there’s too much of it. (“Pretty good” can get really tiresome.)

I therefore decided to divide the post into two installments, publishing them on consecutive days. In order to successfully pull off my “Plan B”, I had to find the appropriate “breaking spot”, the precise point where I could naturally end “Installment One”, and with minimum damage to the narrative flow, open “Installment Two” the following day.

To find this appropriate “breaking spot”, it would be necessary for me to read the entire piece over again. Which I proceeded to do. And while I was reading it,

I began to make changes.

It had not been my intention to make any adjustments to the posting. I believed, after writing and rewriting the piece the day before until it seemed like further revision would make it no better and possibly even worse, that the optimization of that posting, now two postings, had been skillfully accomplished.

And yet, there I was the following morning, sitting at my computer,

Making it better.

Discovering “typos”, after thinking I had caught and corrected them all. Making necessary clarifications to a story that, a day earlier appeared to be crystal clear. Discovering more evocative modifiers after believing the modifiers I had selected to be ideal. They weren’t.

I found idealer ones.

The following morning.

I know myself. I’m aware of my tendencies. Not my “daily life” tendencies – at least not all of them, not even all of them that aren’t shameful and disgusting – I’m talking about my writing tendencies.

I know I’m a rewriter. I rarely “nail it” on the first try. And I know that, given the chance to rewrite ad infinitum,

I would.

I am not talking about the same day. Every day, when I finish writing a post, I believe, as I mentioned,

“That’s it. I can make no further improvements. It’s done.”

But provided the opportunity – as I was when I decided to chop an extended posting in half – I would find myself back at it. Making changes. And, in fact, to my surprise and my humbling bewilderment,

Making it better.

Silly me, yesterday. I thought it was perfect. Well, that’s an exaggeration. But I did think there was no more I could bring to it.

I was wrong.

I just needed a small break. Then I am back to work and, suddenly, astonishing upgrades come flooding into my brain. Why didn’t I see them yesterday? I have no idea. It’s just the way it works.

The problem is, according to this arrangement, I could write the post, complete it to my total satisfaction – it’s not just that I’m tired, or bored; I really believe that it’s done – come back the next day, improve it, come back the next day, improve it some more, come back the next day, improve it still further…do you see where I’m going with this?

I would never, ever be finished.

Instead of more than eight hundred and fifty postings, I would, instead, have


Which I continue to be working on.

That can’t be right, can it?

If it isn’t, however, we are left with the troubling question:

When exactly are you finished?

A fellow writer used to call the needless reexamining of a line that got a laugh when it was originally pitched, “Stabbing the frog.” I respectfully believe otherwise. I do not view our contrasting approaches in terms of better and worse, simply different. (Though my intensity may have inadvertently conveyed judgment.)

It never occurred to me that that writer was lazy – “We’ve spent enough time on this.” I never thought he had inferior standards – “It’s good enough.” I not for a second believed he was cynical – “What difference does it make? It’s only television.”

That writer had implicit faith in the “rightness” of the original impulse. And I agree with him. The inspiration is essential. But, for me, it does not rule out a – time-limited – exploration of ameliorating alternatives.

I even pondered if “Stabbing the frog” were the best way to describe the situation.

I am still working on it.


Correction: In Friday's posting, the actual price of the Navajo rug we returned was eleven hundred and fifty dollars, not eleven hundred. I remembered my mistake after I wrote the posting, and made a mental note to go back and fix it. And then I forgot to. I think I'll make actual notes from now on. Or fix the thing immediately. I am happy to report that I have made the appropriate adjustment for the posterity version of the posting.


Mac said...

It's a good point. When I got my first proper writing job I used to totally freak out when the head writer would say "I need something on (whatever), I'll be back in fifteen minutes." I'd got the job based on material that I'd spent ages re-writing. and perfecting.
I'd spend 14 minutes racking my brains in fear of getting sacked, then the gag would always appear in the last minute. As for reviewing it next day to see if it still held up - forget it, the audience would decide if it still help up or if it stank.
I think it did give me (as well as grey hairs) the ability to trust that instinct that if it makes you laugh first-time, go with it. And also, if the joke doesn't work, no-one dies.

Vernon Wells Fargo said...

"Nothing is written. It is re-written." And usually, a lot. But, yes, there must be a point when you do stab the frog or at least, hand the copy to Mel Cooley. I suppose the deadline will make that determination for you, for the writers.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Does "This post has been removed by the author" mean it was removed by the blogger or the person who made the comment? I've always wondered.

Earl Pomerantz said...

I have never removed a comment. You have never made me need to. The commenter removed it. I have no idea why. It's like, "That posting made me want to say this...but I'm not going to."