In a recent interview I read with the writer Lorrie Moore, she observed, “How a novel finishes is, there’s a moment when you know it has problems, and you don’t know how to fix them. That’s when you’re done.”

I have arrived at that moment. It's not so much that my book sucks. (I hope not anyway.)  It's that, after revision after revision and rewrite after rewrite, there are still some problems, but the ones that remain are the ones I don't know how to fix. (It's with the copy editor now, so I'm hoping she may be able to help me with a few of them.) This part of the process is less about having the strength to kill your darlings than it is about the serenity prayer: God (of writing), please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity comes hard. I am pretty sure that if, as I've done at different times over the last few years, I let the novel sit for awhile--picking it up again six months from now, say, with fresh eyes and a less intimate and exhausted perspective--there would be plenty of things I could make better about it. I also have the feeling that I could go on doing that for the next ten years and still see room for improvement. Part of this has to do with the fact that this is my first novel, and no amount of editing is going to turn it into my fifth. With writing there is no way around but through, and it's inevitable that some of the learning we do occurs on stage, as difficult as it is to expose one's shortcomings in public. This is not to excuse the actor who doesn't rehearse and prepare as thoroughly as she is able. Our most sacred duty, as writers, is to challenge every sloppy sentence, every flat line of dialogue, every untrue thing--to put, as Francine Prose quotes a friend as saying in her indispensable "Reading Like A Writer," "every word on trial for its life." But some words come back with a hung jury, and some sentences, while not the gems we wish they were, are okay, and if we are ever to carry out our second most sacred duty as writers--to brave the critics and share our work with the readers we wrote it for--this is something we have to live with.

I can't help wishing, of course, that I'd written my first novel in my twenties, when the inevitable flaws of a first novel--if it's any good--are forgiven in the wake of the excitement a promising debut generates. (At forty-one, it's less a debut than a very late start.) Not being in my twenties comes with considerable advantages, of course. I am not writing this novel from the position of someone with something to prove, or with the fantasy that it will change my life. At the same time, years of reading breathtakingly good writing, and learning, through my own struggles, just how difficult it is to really write well, make it even more difficult to pull the trigger and proclaim my book done. Like Salieri in Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, I know enough to distinguish genius from mediocrity, but the knowledge does not my work genius make.

Given my state of my mind, and the moment I find myself in with my book, the timing could not have been better for my mother to hand me her copy of Anne Patchett's recent book of essays, "This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage." In her essay on writing, titled "The Getaway Car," Patchett, who is as far from a first-time novelist as one can get, talks about the gap between the book we begin with in our minds, that perfect thing, and the book we end up with on the page, which is the closest we can come to it. 

I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it...I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. 

This may seem a bit overwrought--and in my case, given the kind of book I wrote (a pretty light, fun piece of women's fiction, hardly a literary masterpiece), perhaps especially so. But I believe Patchett's emphasis on the writerly art of forgiveness, of accepting that the book we end up with on the page will never be as good as the one we started with in our heads, is a lesson for us all, no matter what kind of book we are writing. Without it, I'd never write another one--and I wouldn't forgive myself for that.

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Comment by Jessica Hatfield on August 18, 2014 at 6:54am
Thanks, I needed that.
Comment by Kamy Wicoff on May 7, 2014 at 10:53am

Thanks so much everyone, for sharing your experiences with this. It is so challenging to let go, but so important! I love the idea of the art as it's own reward, something you do and not only about the end product. That is inspiring.

My mom just sent me a short excerpt from Alice Munro's introduction to her 1996 "Selected Stories" that sheds some light on just how tricky this is even for the most accomplished writers, and I'd like to share it here:

The story, in the first draft, has put on rough but adequate clothes, it is "finished" and might be thought to need no more than a lot of technical adjustments, some tightening here and expanding there, and the slipping in of some telling dialogue and chopping away some flabby modifiers.  It's then, in fact, that the story is in the greatest danger of losing its life, of appearing so hopelessly misbegotten that my only relief comes from abandoning it.  It doesn't do enough.  It does what I intended, but it turns out that my intention was all wrong.  Quite often I decide to give up on it. (This was the point at which, in my early days as a writer, I did just chuck everything out and get started on something absolutely new).  And now that the story is free from my controlling hand a change in direction may occur.  I can't ever be sure this will happen, and there are bad times, though, I should be used to them.  I'm no good at letting go, I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth.  I go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem.  Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this.

A big relief, then.  Renewed energy.  Resurrection.

Except that it isn't the right way.  Maybe a way to the right way.  Now I write pages and pages I'll have to discard.  New angles are introduced, minor characters brought center stage, lively and satisfying scenes are written, and it's all a mistake.  Out they go.  By the time I'm on track, there's no backing out. I know so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there."

Comment by Candace Kearns Read on May 6, 2014 at 6:53pm
Love this post. It's so hard to know when you're done. I'm in the editing process now but it's a project I've been working on, off and on, for 12 years! Hoping I have enough distance at this point to finish the book I am capable of writing. Thank you for reminding us to seek serenity in the process.
Comment by Sakki selznick on May 6, 2014 at 12:23pm

We were at the art museum last month with a bunch of 6-8 year olds, and we saw some amazing things, from a 45,000 year old "venus" figure through a towering, shimmering, more than full-length metal militaristic futuristic pastistic jacket-cape made of, if i recall correctly, metal pop-tops. (This was my favorite thing we saw, as well as my daughter's.) 

But the most interesting thing, on a subterranean level, (metaphorically) as an elaborate painted wood carving--maybe two feet by five feet, covered with animals and plants and bright colors, created, I think, on a Pacific island. As is the tradition in this culture, someone mourning a death hired an artist (probably paying them a great deal) to make carvings for the funeral procession. Then, they threw them away. The museum gathered them and asked permission to take them back to the Midwest. 

Isn't that amazing? her wonderful teacher and I pointed out that in this other culture, art was what you did, not the end product. 

You have done it, Kami, you have written your book. You have, I'm quite confident, used wonderful lies to tell some kind of important truth--Your truth about your subject at this one particular time. In doing so, I'm quite sure you made metaphors that connected things in ways they have never before been connected. Let somebody else gather the carving and put it in a museum. You've made your art--(while building a massive website, starting a publishing company, etc. Now it's time to move on to create some other art that mourns some other loss or celebrates some other birth.  Hurray!

Comment by Mardith Louisell on May 6, 2014 at 12:06pm

Wonderful post and comments. Forgiving is important for so many aspects of writing. Also, worth reminding myself of as I critique or edit others' writing: everything doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to do its job, whatever that is, and if going out in public not look unprofessional.

Comment by Patricia Robertson on May 6, 2014 at 11:53am

Loved your quotes from Lorrie Moore and Anne Patchet. I also like idea that you don't have to get it perfect in your first book. That's what first books are, just a start. Hopefully I'll get better as I go on and write more. I fear that if I don't "wow" everybody with a stunning first novel, they will never give me another chance. This could happen but if i wait for it to be perfect it will never get it out there for others to read and for me to learn from. Also, much as I like Anne Patchett's words, I also find that sometimes I start out with an idea and I'm amazed at what I end up with through the writing  process--exceeds my original idea. When I'm working  on a new novel I can't wait to see what my characters are going to do next.

Comment by Lacey Louwagie on May 6, 2014 at 11:28am

This is when I think of that adage about writing never being truly "finished," just "abandoned." I'm with you -- I could look at any of my writing every other year and do a complete overhaul. But at some point, you have to let go, and I feel that's more a matter of instinct than finally attaining perfection. 

Comment by Susan Holck on May 6, 2014 at 11:04am

Thank you, Kamy, for this oh-so-true post. I love the way you express how so many of us writers (I assume -- at least it's true for me!) feel compelled to achieve perfection in every phrase, every scene, while knowing that perfection is not attainable. I am a 62 year-old writer and am working on my first memoir. I have a draft that I'm revising, while worrying that I'll never be finished revising. I can totally relate to your wish that you were in your 20's; I wish I had decades ahead of me to perfect my writing before working on a memoir. I have to keep reminding myself that I have the gift of many years of life experience to draw upon, and I am hoping that this is a big plus for a memoir. Of course I need the writing to be of high quality also. Bravo to you for your clarity in knowing when to say it is good enough and to let it go for someone else to work on. 

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