Monday, October 26, 2009

When Is It Done?

I don’t like that word, “finish.” When something is finished that means it’s dead, doesn’t it? I believe in everlastingness. I never finish a painting. I just stop working on it for awhile. – Arshile Gorky

Fred wrote this quote down from the exhibition we just attended in Philadelphia, a full retrospective of Gorky’s paintings.* “Here,” he said later, bringing out his notebook, “you’ll like this.” And I do. Very much. It echoes what I have said about writing.

When I was in my teens and first awakening to literature and how a writer could speak through writing in a way you can’t speak any other way, I thought that the words I was reading in Virginia Woolf’s book or Jean Rhys’s book or Kurt Vonnegut’s book were the chiseled words they had firmly and finally decided upon and that in no way could they be changed or improved upon. When you wrote, I thought, your job was to line up the best words and get it right.

I have submitted The Guru Looked Good to many people under different circumstances, and each time I polish it up, and each time I think that’s the best it can be. I think it’s done. And then the next submission time or performance comes around and I see many places where I can sharpen the focus, and I make changes.

I came to realize that when something is published it’s a snapshot of something in motion – you’re catching the work at a particular moment. Writers don’t usually return to something once it’s published, but that doesn’t mean it’s “done.” Nothing’s ever done. The writing – the art -- is alive.

Which could bring me to the subject of getting someone to edit your work. A sore subject with some.

Recently, I was on a panel of mostly memoir writers and someone from the audience – a well meaning writer -- asked us if we recommended having someone edit your work. Two people on the panel, in unison, answered immediately, “Yes.”

I had to chime in. I had to fight this automatic yes.

There is a place – somewhere – for outside editing, but it is a relatively small and insignificant place when we’re talking about writing and especially about memoir which is the most personally demanding form of writing. So much of writing – and the pleasure and effort of writing -- when you’re thinking about putting your work out in the world – is about revisiting your creation and seeing what occurs to you as you read it through again. So I sometimes do plenty of editing when I’m preparing something for presentation.

But editing is the easy part. Kind of like coasting after you've biked to the top of the hill.

I am much more interested in those first grabs for material, when you really have to take risks and reach into yourself and choose what images you are going to go with and what trail of crumbs you are going to follow. That’s what we do in our workshops and it is the most difficult part of writing.

Back to editing since those two writers who said, “Yes!” so effortlessly later took such umbrage with my contrasting point of view.

Very very very few people are capable of editing your work. Certainly not some random professional. A good professional will most likely, at best, tell you how to get your work to conform to some standard. And if that’s your goal, well good-bye and good luck.

Writing and art are about escaping standards. So if you have someone who knows you and your writing deeply, someone who you think is also a good writer – they’d be a good choice to read and respond to your work and make suggestions if they have them. Suggestions. That’s all an editor can make. Writers must always have the last word.

The last thing a person in the process of or beginning to write needs to hear about is getting someone to edit their work. Because beginning writers will be tempted to get their work to Point A and then submit it to a professional for the supposed “fixing.” Then, like a butterfly, the professional will pin the thing to a board and the vulnerable, unsupported artist will assume that that’s the end product.

No. Don’t give your work to a professional editor unless you know them very well and you have a clear vision for what you are going for in your writing. Hold onto your work. Revisit it. Let it mature. Don’t race to have someone else deem your work publishable. Remember, Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime.

*Go see the Gorky exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art. You will see the work of an artist giving himself over to his inner vision, voice, mystery.


  1. My heart thrills when I read this stuff!!!

    I'm like a little kid at Christmas. No, I'm like a mountain climber who did "it," who reached a peak/peek for an eternal moment - a moment that imprints and inspires to climb more peaks, more peeks. There is a never-ending sea of peaks and valleys, landscapes and contours, trails and undiscovered territories.

    "Suggestions"... yes! And that (imo) only if asked for, if desired. And yes! From someone one trusts. And they are ONLY suggestions; the piece is the writer's, not someone elses.

    Oh, to trust the process! To trust the one's own soul.........

    Carol Welch, KGBE
    (My degree...'knowledge gained by experience'... ha! )

  2. Of course I have another poem come to mind. *redface* Hope it's o.k. if I share it here. It does have some language.

    It is one of my favorites, by me:

    "Approval No Longer the Master"

    I despise these fucking standards
    Decades fed with perfectionism
    I wish I could simply erase
    This god-damned approval addiction

    Self-blame a constant resident
    Yet, the guilt does not all lie with me
    Perhaps it's in the warped standards
    Of a false-sterile society

    I've grown to detest sterility
    Breeding its disease in secrecy
    A playground for deception
    Murdering individuality

    How can I grow beyond it
    Without loosing a ravenous beast
    Whose been chained and finally tastes freedom
    With a lusting impulse to feast

    Upon the cravings denied it
    Once starved of the sense to feel
    To allow emancipation
    Will its hunger therein be healed

    Or this insatiable desire to feed
    To express without repression
    Will it slay that which it needs
    And devour its yearned for companion

    Nay, if allowed to follow its longing
    The famine put out to pasture
    This beast will patiently gentle
    Approval no longer the master