Keeping with the previous Ask the Editors writer question, I’m going to address another writer question. I spoke with a student last week about how one knows whether or not a story is complete. It was an excellent question and evoked from me as elusive a response as any question could. My best answer, at the time was, we don’t. Then I gave her a song and dance about “fail better” and how even the great Hemingway rewrote endings and how Scribner years later released a new edition of Hemingway’s acclaimed A Farewell to Arms.
Aside: I seem to have asides each time I mention Hemingway. I’ve been rereading Arms of late. Catherine Barkley is about as real as the word darling is to my vocabulary. There is a version of Catherine Barkley who lives in an alternative 50s New York somewhere, probably a George Plimpton slash pre-Warhol party, but damn it, I’ve never seen any one woman, or man, for that matter, who have adopted “darling” with such dogmatic principle. I have resorted to skipping most of Barkley’s lines in the novel.
After the “completion discussion,” I spent the drive home from Baltimore thinking intently on completion. I thought about how difficult this is, completion. I thought about how arrogant it seems, in principle, to even think a work is complete and actually send it to anyone because the guidance I’ve always followed is that we never know. We are always accepting a certain amount of failure each time we let a work leave our desk and let it dawdle out into the world. I will admit to having let a work go a time or two too soon. They’ve stumbled and fallen and sometimes an editor has been beautiful and taken it by the hand and me by the hand and pushed me to find the best of the work before it has gone to print or “print” online. There has been a time or two when a piece has published online, and I’ve found a typo or glaring mistake that makes me choke on my coffee, and I frantically email editor and apologize profusely about not having caught the mistake before and ask for this change and that. And then sometimes, a work goes out and I read it months or years after first publication and still feel a sense of experience. The typos and the needed fixes, if they are there, are hidden behind what I’m able to read and sense and experience in the work, and that is a good day, I think. They are rare. I am a horrible, horrible post editor of my own work. Always looking for missed typos and fixes.
On a higher level, I sometimes feel like a work has more to say. No. That’s a lie. I am always certain a work I’ve written has more to say, that I have failed it somehow. I am forever feeling incomplete as a writer. I am forever certain my stories are incomplete. It is a frustrating obsession, writing. I’ve trained myself to accept a certain level of failure with every story but it doesn’t make me feel accomplished, it makes me feel like a shit. I’m sending something less than what I know it could be out into the world. If I spent five years on a short story, it would be closer to ready. And I’ve done this a few times. But some stories, I’m ready to send out in shorter time and so as a writer I am always failing. There it is. And then sometimes some wonderful editor comes along and asks for a piece for their journal and I think, Jesus, do you not know what you’re getting yourself into? And then I panic a little because I either need to write something new or I need to finalize a piece I’ve been editing for months. Then some days I write something one day, edit it the next, and send it because I am deluded to think it works, and then it publishes. And a time or two, the “quick work” still holds up for me months or years after. This completely baffles me.
And so, I have no answer for when a work is complete. The best answer for this is the work itself. It will let you know best it can.
This could be frustrating except that I am happy to let the importance of writing be in the process of writing. I don’t know what that might mean to you. What it means to me is that finding the language of a story is as important to me as the story expressing itself to a readership. Stories have personalities and lives. I often go to Flannery O’Connor in craft, and I’ll do it again here, O’Connor’s organics of story. How the structure and necessity of story will reveal itself. It’s something of an excavation, I suspect. Maybe I’m more of an archaeologist than a writer. Maybe that’s it. Maybe I should be something else and have a better answer for completion, but I really don’t. My best answer is that the story will let you know when it’s ready. Your voice will let you know when it’s ready. Like forming a relationship with a best friend or lover, there comes a point when you know a depth and breadth of your limits and needs and that of your partner’s and you’re able to make choices for the best interests of both. Craft and stories are not so different. It is a relationship you build with your voice and with each individual story. When the lust turns to love and you are able to think about long term versus short term, you can trust that you’ll know, somehow, when your voice and your story are ready to brave more social arenas and when a story should be let go, departed, broken up with.
On a practical level, I do have a particular vehicle towards finding completion, as imperfect as it is. I need to hear my stories. Literally. I write for not only story but also language and so the form of voice within language is extremely important to me. I didn’t know this when I first started to write. I knew nothing when I started. I was a bumbling idiot when I first started. Now, I am a bumbling idiot with some idea of what idiocy might work for me. Essentially, when I’ve written a work and have revised it then given it some time in the drawer then have come back to it, I’m ready to hear it. I will read it aloud into a mic or to a trusted reader/listener. I will often have a trusted reader/listener read it to me. Listening to one’s words in someone else’s mouth is a very quick way to determine whether or not the story and language are flowing.
My best advice is this. If you can find someone you really trust, someone who has a writing or editorial aesthetic that is your ultimate aesthetic and they read your work to you in a way that makes you not loathe yourself, makes you think, hmm, that’s a story I’m glad to have heard read to me, then you can be pretty sure the story is worth considering further. And maybe, maybe, it will complete itself.