I recently finished up the millionth draft of my young adult manuscript, and as I neared the end of the current round of rewrites, I considered a question many writers before me have faced: how do you know when you’re really done with a draft? I asked this question recently to someone who has to write regularly for work, albeit in a much different field–an attorney. He answered jokingly that he knows he has finished a brief when he runs out of time. Deadlines determine a lot in professional writing; I experience this when writing press releases for my own day job. When writing creatively, it seems like we could tinker forever, as though the story will never be finished–even after we turn it into our editors.
I asked this question of my oldest and dearest friend, a poet about to graduate from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (congratulations!). His response was a succinct, “Don’t flinch.” As he explained it, whenever you reach a point in your work that begs for more attention to be paid to it, don’t turn away no matter how much you want to. Every time there is an unanswered question, you have to answer it.
I was presented with the opportunity to flinch many times during my novel’s rewrite (and now, as I tackle rewrites on one of my short story collections). Sometimes it’s a guttural feeling, an annoying ache that says, “You’re not done yet. Don’t walk away from this.” You must listen to that voice, feel that instinctual pull, no matter how annoying it is because you don’t want to stay put. You want to move forward and create. Onward! You don’t want to stay here and coax the writing a little longer. But as long as the writing presents you with something that makes you flinch–an underdeveloped character, a section of lengthy exposition, a plot point with too many holes–you must face it.
Now I must, as always, cite my intellectual role model, Maria Popova, and a recent posting on Brain Pickings about John Steinbeck and the diary he kept while writing his masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath. She quotes John and his personal dissection of his writing and his work ethic: “In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, ‘I’ll do it if I feel like it.’ One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all.”
“Some little quality of fierceness.” “Don’t flinch.” To me, it seems like knowing when you’re done (or not done) with a story, poem, or any other form of creative writing is an act of bravery. Your readers may not think you are done, and since you can’t please everyone, you have to come to terms with this. You must learn to trust yourself, whether it be staying put a little longer or knowing when to move on. To create art is to be vulnerable and fearless at the same time. How often do we have that opportunity?