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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Part 2: How Do You Know When a Work is Finished

Blog No. 13

Note:
For those who want to read this entry, it would be useful to look first at #12 where I talk as an editor and teacher (in other words, a critical reader) about manuscripts that have been shaped too soon. And, I point out several signs that might indicate that a work is still unfinished--things like: the writer hasn’t yet discovered the central idea of the piece; beginnings and endings that don’t match up with the larger narrative; the voice and/or the persona aren’t in sync with the narrative; the writer’s trying to cover too much ground as opposed to probing more deeply beyond or beneath the narrative’s story line.

It would seem then, the overall problem is that the structure/shape somehow don’t quite mesh yet with the piece’s central intent.

In this entry (a bit longer than the others), I’ll speak as a writer and use examples from my own struggles with these problems, in hopes that readers will find some useful strategies they can adapt to their own work.
MJS
1
Author Marcie Hershman writes,
"…writing a memoir is different from keeping a journal…. a memoir asks more from writers than the faithful recording of a daily chronology; it requires shape, pace, aim, and characters whose interactions come to reveal something important… {t}he writer's task is to serve the story: to elect from its many impulses and actions its strongest shape, to craft carefully the tension and rhythm of its prose…"

Years ago, I happened to see the Stanley Kubrick film, "Full Metal Jacket." In an early scene, a cruel D. I., mercilessly hazes and intimidates a frightened, unstable, recruit who retaliates unexpectedly by shooting and killing, first, the D. I. and next, himself. The scene immediately triggered a memory of a disturbing (though not as violent) incident in my adolescence; that is, a surprising (to me) confrontation that occurred between myself at age fourteen and a bigoted VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) summer league baseball coach, a man who was rumored to be an anti-Semite; a man who believed and acted on the notion that Jewish kids, like me, were too soft. Read More 

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How Do You Know When a Work is Finished?

Blog Entry No. 12

Prefatory Note

A while ago, I received a note from a colleague, “ You have wonderful advice to dispense as a writer, “ she wrote. But I think your experience as an editor could be very beneficial to writers...{We} need to know what editor’s think about, what they look for, etc. I think good editors can tell immediately when a work isn't finished, when the structure is wrong, etc…. I like how you talk about these issues in your own writing, but want to hear a lot more about how you see these problems in other peoples' writing, and perhaps advice on how they can see it in their own.”

In response to her suggestions, I've divided this post into two interrelated parts.

In part I, I’ll talk as an editor and teacher about final drafts that are, according to the writer, finished pieces; but, for one reason or another, seem to me to still need work. In part II, I’ll illustrate with more specifics some examples of how, after years of writing and rewriting a particular essay/memoir, I found the missing elements that finally allowed me to complete it. The latter post will appear sometime during the week of January 14.

Beth, this one’s for you.

How Do You Know When a Work is Finished?

Part I
Back when I was the editor of the literary journal Fourth Genre, many of the better essays we wound up not being able to publish were turned down because we--the editorial board readers--felt they weren’t finished; in other words, not yet fully realized.

For the most part, those essays and memoirs, several of which had real potential, were gracefully written and clearly rendered personal narratives. The same is true for many of my MFA student’s self-proclaimed “final drafts.” In both instances, I found the drafts had been shaped too soon. That is, the author hadn’t yet discovered the central idea, and/or structural element(s), that would bring the work together as a finished, fully dimensional dimensional whole. (If indeed any piece of writing is ever truly finished). Read More 

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