“No book can ever be finished. While working on it we learn just
enough to find it immature the moment we turn away from it.”
― Karl Popper
I have a history of being a particularly mobile writer. In my earliest days as a self-proclaimed “novelist to-be,” I remember lying in the bathtub, holding a notepad over the water and scratching away at my latest idea; I remember writing at the kitchen table, shuffling my journal away when it was time for dinner; writing in bed after everyone else had gone to sleep, writing sprawled on the floor, writing on the bumpy bus ride to school, writing in the margins of my homework, writing on my arms when I had no other option and a writing mood struck. I never figured out how to write in the shower, but I was well on my way to a solution when I made the transition to the more stationary process of typing out my plans instead of scrawling them on every available surface. Despite this change, one thing that has remained constant is that I never
A shortage of ideas is never the problem. First, inspiration strikes like a reverse pickpocket, leaving me with more potential schemes than I can accommodate. The next step is planning, which I achieve by spraying sentence fragments in something similar to but not quite resembling chronological order. Then I dive in, haphazardly packing meat onto the bare bones of the story, swept along as I flesh out scenes in no discernable pattern. I might find a phrase that resonates perfectly, only to realize I accidentally stole it from something I’d read. I crank out a thousand words past midnight, only to remove them the next day. In many cases, I somehow stumble all the way through the hazy plan I had in mind at the beginning. It’s in coming to what should be the final touches that my problems lie.
Completing a developed story, for me, is like coming home to dinner slow-cooking in a Crock-Pot, but no one left a note telling you when to turn it off. You know you have to let it stew, working through the refining process, but when is it supposed to be ready? You don’t know for sure. Therefore, when it comes to writing for school, in any form, I have a secret: I have never turned in a finished product. I fish that meat out of that Crock-Pot for a dinner time deadline, whether or not it is done cooking. The essay is never raw, never a disaster—I was even proud of it when I was working on it. But, as Popper says, It’s only after I step away to reflect that I turn on my own work, dissociating from it and rejecting it. The divide between my writing and others’ writing is a rigid dichotomy. One can be perfected, can be polished to a shine, while the other is missing something. I can see the ragged stitches barely holding it together, toeing the line between endearing and sloppy. I see these flaws because I’m the one who assembled it in the first place.
When I convince myself that my work is incomplete, I trap myself in a strange loop of rejecting further changes while simultaneously being quietly dissatisfied with what I’ve created.
“I don’t know what to do with it,” I might say to a listening ear.
“Well, you could try . . .” the response might begin, but any suggestion will inevitably fall on deaf ears. The problem is more fundamental than rewording can fix, I tell myself; the writing is already outdated. Do I start over with a new organization? Is the story itself the problem? In my writing process, self-doubt is both a major step and the final obstacle. It motivates improvement but also delays finalization. The piece is malleable and open to input during its formation, but as soon as I hit the final roadblock of completion I block out others’ opinions.
Looking at old stories and school assignments just makes me shake my head. Over time, the very exercise of writing hones my skills as a writer, meaning that whatever I do is inherently worse than what I will soon be doing. It’s the same process in all creation; after all, every artist is her own greatest critic.
Every piece is a work in progress, even after deadlines and edits have long passed. With the move to writing through digital means, a document is never exported for the final time; I can always go back and change details, tinker, or meddle with my words, ostensibly until I’m satisfied—but the day that actually happens, I’ll eat my words.