The impossibility of finishing anything

Small potatoes

You can’t “finish” any writing task, or so I tell my students and myself. Revising and proofreading are crucial, and if it’s high-stakes writing, you should make time to do that repeatedly, but at some point you just have to call it quits. There’s no such thing as perfection.

Knowing that, I still feel incredibly anxious when I hand in a final copy of a book ms, as I’ll do very soon for my essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds. I’ve been working on the damn thing for ten years. My editor has reviewed the whole ms, and several editors have reviewed sections of it for magazine publication. It’s in good shape. But this weekend I found a couple of typos we’d all missed; EVERY time I go through it, I find sentences to improve. Just yesterday, I noticed some inconsistencies in how I was using italics. Small potatoes, I know, but it always makes me wonder what else I’m not spotting or thinking of, or what useful secondary source I may have missed. A few years from now, I will think, “that was an unfortunate way to put it” or “I wish I had inoculated against that critique.” I have felt those regrets about every single book I’ve ever published.

Likewise, before each revision, I go through a crazy “clearing the decks” pre-work phase–as if I could ever get to the stage when every email has been responded to and every reference letter written. You can’t put off writing until nothing else is clamoring for your attention. You just have to stop attending to the other stuff for a while.

The small jobs lately have included proofs–as essay based on the last chapter of Poetry’s Possible Worlds is forthcoming in The Account–and logging about five million poetry rejections (and one acceptance). I’ve also paused to register delightful things, including an interview Edward A. Hall recorded with me in April being released by StoryCorps. THAT was an intense experience, since it happened in my mother’s house when she was very ill, as it turns out about a week before she died. But it was a great talk; Ed is a wonderful writer and a mensch. I also have a poem called “Sore Tongue Song” in Quarterly West. It’s a bit surreal, as many prose poems tend to be, and involves a family heritage of missing teeth. I was born without four molars, so those baby teeth hung in there, sometimes for decades (I still have one!). My mother had the same deficiency, as does my son, although apparently it’s more common in women.

I’m hoping to hit send on the book ms Monday and then write a reference letter or two. In any case, at Tuesday lunchtime, when I will put the work down and drive off to rendezvous with family. Any US writers out there lucky enough to have a few days off work this week, I hope you can call a halt, too. Taking breaks is part of the process. You can’t do good work without them. I mean, I’ll still be peeling potatoes–there’s life work as well as writing, teaching, and committee work–but physical labor can be refreshing in its own way, as long as you mash it up with couch time.

8 responses to “The impossibility of finishing anything”

  1. I used to tell my students that if JK Rowling reread her books, she’d want to change something. And I heard a great Ezra Klein podcast just the other day about revision. It’s the Nov. 9 one called Two Acclaimed Writers on the Art of Revising Your Life with Kiese Laymon and Tressie McMilan Cottom. I like thinking of life as constant revisions. Good luck with your revising and Happy Thanksgiving.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rowling: definitely. If I had a nickel for every time she said Harry’s stomach hurt…I used to edit the prose as I read it aloud. And you’re right, too, that there’s lots to say about revising one’s life. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!


  3. Between vision issues and probably some mental wiring I’m a lousy proof-reader of my own work. I’m also increasingly rusty on punctuation rules I once learned over 50 years ago — but that’s me. A trick that’s saved me a thousand embarrassments in blogging text in recent years is that modern versions of Microsoft Word have a read aloud feature. Unlike my own voice — perfectly capable of reading my own text as I **intended** it — it reads what I actually wrote down and the “Ouches!” stand out.

    Anyway, looking forward to that book. We’ll agree ahead of time that it won’t be as good as the one you’d write with one more revision, and better than the one before the last revision 🙂


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