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.