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

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).

It’s a common dilemma that both novices and seasoned writers (myself included) often encounter.

Here then, are some general thoughts and observations about this problem.

-- The beginning and ending of a given piece doesn’t mesh seamlessly with the larger narrative. This was something I discovered while I was writing an essay/memoir, a piece that I originally believed was finished, but ultimately took several years to finally complete.

It's also something I’ll discuss in more detail in part two of this post.

--Here’s another: As an editor I’ve seen many pieces where the overall structure wasn’t the right match for a piece’s ideas. For instance, one writer, I remember, submitted a chronological essay/memoir that cut across a variety of different times and settings. She began with her childhood years growing up in the west, then segued to her more turbulent adolescent years in the south, and finally finished up by describing her adult years, when she lived, with some ambivalence, in the midwest. About halfway through the memoir, the narrative began to lapse into a “this happened, then this, then this” story. Which immediately flattened out the prose. In the process, this approach pretty much shut down the narrator’s thought process as well as her alertness and ability to make larger connections. In fact, it left her with no opportunities to digress and/or to explore other possibilities.

Our board’s collective thought was that instead of a chronological narrative, perhaps a disjunctive or segmented structure would have been a better choice.

--Similarly, as a teacher, I’ve seen work where the voice and/or persona aren’t in-sync with the narrative. For example, I’ve read several essay/memoirs where the narrator come across as too one-dimensional; that is, while he/she is clearly and accurately able to retell the story, render the details, and provide precise visual descriptions, he/she still wasn’t able to probe beneath the surface and/or search, once again, for larger human connections.

-- At other times, I’ve read narratives whose arc tried to cover too much ground, again leaving the narrator fewer opportunities for exploration, reflection, and/or speculation.

These last examples are indications, I believe, of a recurring problem. As Phillip Lopate writes, “...an essay allows you to ramble in a way that reflects the mind at work...in an essay, the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some kind of understanding of a problem is the plot, the adventure.”

I point this out because, when it comes right down to it, the personal narrative is the singular form of literary writing that’s centered, for the most part, not on plot or subject but on the story of the writer’s inner thoughts.

Too my mind then, one of the biggest reasons why so many personal essays and memoirs are shaped too soon is that a lot of would-be essayists and memoirists don’t allow themselves the opportunity to probe deeper, either beyond or beneath the situations and events that happened.

Here’s a good illustration. Recently, a former MFA student asked what I meant when I urged him to explore the prospect of finding another layer, another dimension that goes beyond the piece being just a personal narrative. Learning how to layer a piece is something that's taken me decades as a writer to learn. And as my slow, convoluted process testifies, I'm continually having to relearn it.

I’ll close with this thought. Like many other writers, novices and veterans both, one of the reasons I still shape some of my work too soon is because after working so hard for so long, I come to the point where I think of the work is a finished draft. That is, however, until I read it two, three, six months later. In fact, the longer I wait to go back to it, the more perspective and distance--emotional and literal—I’ve gained. Sometimes, I’ll even let a manuscript sit for nine to twelve months before going back to it.

The emotional and real time distance, I believe, allow you to see the work in a larger context and a more objective light. Because six, nine, even twelve months later, I’m a more experienced writer. I’ve read and written more. It's still no less of a struggle.But in the process I’ve (hopefully) acquired more strategies, more tools, more craft.

As so, when I come back to the work , I’m not looking at subject, story, or narrative line. I’m trying to find the central feeling, idea, image and/or thought that, once you’ve found it, becomes the emotional (and structural) heartbeat of the piece. (For a more extended discussion of this matter you might want to take a look at blog entries #9 and #10).

In any case, more frequently than not, whatever was missing or unfinished in what I once thought was a final draft, becomes, in retrospect almost too obvious to me. So much so that sometimes I can’t even recall writing the piece. It's like I'm saying to myself, "Dummy, how could you have missed that the first time around?" Given my self-imposed patience (not an easy thing for the lies of me) as well as the voluntary distance, it’s as if I’m a teacher reading the work of a student, or an editor evaluating a submission.

That’s when I begin to seriously revise. It's also when I stop asking for other people’s suggestions. Which means that now I can focus, bear down, and dig deeper. In other words, I can compose more freely, with a more fully present self.

But that’s another story for another day.

To be continued in the next entry, # 13

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