In his book, THE ART OF POETRY,* a book I highly recommend if you can find it, French poet Paul Valery makes a remarkable statement about finishing a piece of writing. "A work is never necessarily finished," he said. It is his adverb that says it best. Necessarily.
...for he who made it is never complete, and the power and agility he has drawn from it confer on him, just the power to improve it, and so on.
—Paul Valery, The Art of Poetry
It is a nod to the writing-as-a-living-thing condition of the craft. The finished piece, Valery suggests, is capable of instructing beyond itself. All writers have felt the pang of missed opportunity, of "I wish I'd said this," or "I wish I had said it that way," or "That adverb doesn't quite work does it?" or "one metaphor too many." And I am not sure it is a thing you can teach, that is, to "know" when a piece is finished, polished, and ready for consumption. Necessarily. Then sometimes it makes a noticeable, and quite pleasant hum. It is just something you know.
In the 1984 film, Amadeus, a study in resentment, musician and malcontent Antonio Salieri is driven to madness by a jealous obsession with a "giggling, dirty minded creature . . . the lustful, smutty infantile boy" Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who has been endowed with talent that God seems to have denied Salieri. Deliciously devious, but doomed by his own hidden adoration for Mozart, in the course of the movie Salieri offers brilliant commentary on an opera written by the creature.
And music . . . finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase, and the structure would fall.
—Peter Shaffer, Amadeus
Can we ask the same of words? Can a text ever be finished as no text is ever finished? [And notice I said finished, not perfect, though the difference is negligible.] Yes, it can. The masters of our language have proven that again and again. "Displace one word," we might say, "and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase, and the structure would fall."
But as appetizing as that might sound, it's a call only you can make. And you have to want it bad enough to study and understand just what it means to be finished. With both charm and economy in mind, make it a practice not to let up on a single utterance—be it a word, phrase, a construction, a line, a paragraph—until you feel that hum of recognition. Of course, you are the only one that can say for certain just what that is. It is an instinctual call, cultivated by years of listening. And again, it lives in the ear, as music and great writing does.
This is not as impossible as it sounds.
William Tyndale, who entered the phrase "author and finisher" into the stream of the English language, was a fiendishly obsessive reviser. The phrase is singular in the sense that the author is a finisher.
The clarity Tyndale sought would hardly leave him alone until it was spun out of him, until it was quiet. “Give us this day our daily bread” is as complete as a thread of text can be complete. There is no further need of revision. And it never seems to age. The infinite is liberated through the finite, that is, through the absolute completeness of a line.
—David Teems, Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God An English Voice [Nelson, 2012]
Shakespeare continually revised his plays. Granted, he had a tuning fork in his brain, but the HAMLET you got on Wednesday wasn't always the HAMLET you got on Friday afternoon.
Walt Whitman shows us another side of the obsession. After self-publishing LEAVES OF GRASS in 1855, Whitman continued to revise this one book for the next thirty-seven years. There is a lesson to be learned here. While there is much to be admired, many scholars feel that Whitman injured his great book by doing so. I have a copy of his original 1855 version. It is still my favorite. It has the vitality, the original fire that is muted or altogether absent in the latter LEAVES. The point is, you can over-edit if you're not careful. That ping of recognition, as sweet as it is, as elusive and fleeting, is something you must reverence on one hand, subdue and conquer on the other, ever mindful of the intensity of your grip. Balancing on a highwire might be overstating it, but it is a useful image.
What does this mean for the rest of us? It means fine tuning, developing the ear (the writer's chief organ) finding your own measures by which to judge, putting that tuning fork in your own brain to use, remembering too that each piece you write will ask different things of you. Each one will demand its own peculiar standard, its own economy. The voice of my book MAJESTIE, for all its instructional weight, was playful at times. On occasion, if you lean in you can hear me chuckle in the background. But as much as I wanted to sustain that same voice in my next book, TYNDALE, it didn't happen. As I wrote in the prologue, "where MAJESTIE was allowed to laugh this book must grit its teeth." I learned a valuable lesson about voice and about that hum I sought so diligently—to pay attention and listen.
To finish implies three things. Actually, it implies many things, but three will serve for now.
1. It means that something is complete, that a text has said all it is going to say and with a minimal/sufficient amount of words to say it. It means you have said enough but not all. It means you have done the necessary work, spun your rude straw into gold (or English Sterling, whichever image suits your tastes).
2. It implies a gloss, like the finish of a shiny new car or a piece of polished granite. When I was a kid my father taught me how to "spit shine" my shoes. It took work and a lot of spit but the image applies with good writing too. Put in the time and study to give your work the polish it deserves. And don't leave out the spit. Be as primitive as you like with a first draft, then tame it, civilize it for consumption.
3. You are free to do something else. Thomas Wolfe said once that "you read a book to remember it. You write a book to forget it." Once finished, once published, or posted, as Donnie Brasco learned to say, "Forget about it."
Listen for the hum. Be diligent. Do the work. Know when to stop. Do not hold the reins too tightly. Be relentless but patient, aloof but vigilant, as one panning for gold. Swish. Swish.
*Valery, Paul. "The Art of Poetry." The Collected Works of Paul Valery, Number 7, The Bollinger Series, Princeton University Press, 1958.