A writer friend tells me he considers all his short stories unfinished.
He winces at the ones in print—so permanent!—because all he can see is the need for revision. I’ve heard many times the conventional wisdom that no piece of writing is ever really finished but I thought that was a philosophical stance, really just another comment about the imperfection of all things.
No, my friend says, not philosophical, not at all. Just true. True and heartbreaking.
So why is my heart never more whole than when I have completed a story?
I worry about that sense of satisfaction I feel when I know I have done all I can with a story—maybe it means I’m lazy. Complacent. Maybe I’m too self-satisfied to know that I can push harder, that, in fact, I have NOT done all I can with the story. Too self-satisfied, then, to be a good writer.
I also worry that because I have traveled so little and known so few I will never be much of a writer. I fear that my dislike of wine and refusal to try raw oysters are proof of a lesser soul—I will never appreciate the truly good things so how can I write well? I suspect that my weakness for Miss Marple and Project Runway are signs of unconquerable mediocrity. And a half-dozen books on writing assure me that my inability to sit down for the same two hours every day means death to my writing ambition.
Maybe my brand of toothpaste is holding me back, too. If my hair hadn’t turned brown in my early twenties, I might have a Pulitzer by now.
Obviously I don’t need more reasons to doubt myself. But this dissatisfaction my friend—my very well-published friend—feels about his stories, this belief that he has never truly completed anything? Maybe that’s not a quirk or garden-variety writer-neurosis. Maybe his nagging sense that there is always more to do with every story is about the fineness and grand scope of his vision.
If that’s true, it bears thinking about, because vision is everything. Isn’t it?
Always my vision for a short story is this gorgeous, pulsing, glowing thing (or a red-hot, searing, painful thing, or a frayed, fragile, whispery thing)—something I can just glimpse, ahead of me and out of reach, as I shuffle along in the fog. When I’m in the thick of making the story, those glimpses alternately thrill and dismay, because what I’m seeing is my inspiration as much as it is the cruel proof that I will never fully reproduce a half-glimpsed story-vision on the page. At least for me, that’s how visions appear to work—they defy as much as they lure.
But I can appreciate the almost-there of a story that comes oh so tantalizingly close to a full rendering of the flirty vision that inspired it. When it comes so close my stomach flips, I know I’m done with that story.
The problem is that my stomach flips for a number of my stories that are, frankly, just not terribly good. And I’m wondering if that happens to me because often my vision is too limited for a partial rendering to be excellent. Sure, through the fog, the vision seemed to glow in all the right places. Yes, its colors were true. But well, will you just look at this story?
My story has a limp. And a rash.
One of my stomach-flipping stories—a finished story—is just plain predictable.
On page 2 you know what’s likely to be on the final page 12. I have tried to fix this but when I do the stomach calms down. I get farther from the vision. Because for me, and for my laughing vision, the joy of the story is in the way the promise of page 2 gets realized in the story’s last paragraph.
Am I right? I think not. I think editors will disagree. Twenty editors have disagreed so far, in fact.* But the vision is what it is.
Another stomach-flipping story begins with, and is ultimately sunk by, a Kafka-esque premise. There isn’t an editor in the land who won’t read that story and think, with the first sentence… “The Metamorphosis.” Again, I have stared at that first paragraph, attempted to re-envision what I’ve done. But to no avail. That’s the vision.
I am as unforgiving of my own imperfections as anyone. I see the flaws in everything I make—short story, thank you note, blog post, pan of lasagna, apology. But when it comes to my short stories (and a pan of lasagna) I can acknowledge that what I have made… I have made.
I know that some of my particularly flawed stories are “done” at the same time that I see clearly how this one limps across the page, clutching its broken bones, how that one looks pale and pinched and could use a few good meals. Even as my stomach flips, signaling that I have come as close to my vision as I can, I see clearly the story’s shortcomings. The stunning, glittering version of the story I chased through the fog was probably not so grand and shining as I’d thought. Disappointing. But on to the next.
Or not? Not on to the next?
Maybe I should lay down the law: if a story has shortcomings, I will eliminate those shortcomings. Yet as disappointed as I am in my limping story, I am so pleased that it stands, it walks, it lives. That limp—it’s actually kind of endearing. I don’t see it as a sign that I need to shorten one leg or lengthen the other. My story’s limp (or phlegmy cough or bald spot or blackened toenail) is not a sign that the story isn’t finished.
My story’s flaws mean, maybe, that the story isn’t publishable. It means, possibly, that my vision for it was, after all, less than spectacular. It means, certainly, that I have more work to do and territory to explore and visions to chase.
On to the next.
Did you know that Thomas Edison once made a concrete piano?
Edison discovered this new, inexpensive construction material, concrete, and he saw the potential for a revolution in the design of furniture, houses. Pianos. Ultimately he developed and sold a process for pouring a concrete house but on his way to that short-lived venture, yes, he tried a concrete piano.
When I discovered this I thought about it for days. How could a person as intelligent and knowledgeable as Edison consider for an instant the possibility of a concrete piano?
I will never know what drives a brilliant mind like Edison’s but I’m betting he never fretted about his vision. I imagine Edison enthralled by that concrete piano ahead of him in the mist, enchanted by his dream of making music inexpensive and attainable for every household. I see him throwing himself into the making of his inventions (his envisions) without much concern for rules and limitations.
Edison didn’t sort out the bad visions from the good ones because how can you know which vision works until you allow it to manifest?
I’m betting, too, that he knew when to stop tinkering and move on to the next.
Maybe my writer friend is not the best model for me and the way I want to make and think about stories. Edison is my man. He reminds me to render my vision as well as I can, to honor the work, to then just move on. Because Edison made a concrete piano. There’s nothing lazy or complacent about that.
The man made a concrete piano. Which, of course, didn’t catch on as he had hoped. Piano makers continued to make pianos out of wood and it was still too expensive for most people to have one—and therefore piano music—in the home. So Edison made something else. And something else and something else again and something else.
And then he made the phonograph.
*Well, an editor DID agree—I got that story published in a fine magazine and I’m still very happy with it.
Image by Tomasz G. Sienicki via Wikimedia Commons.