Dear Nancy:

It was good to see you in Chapel Hill for our meal–our sweet potato biscuits–yesterday, and to begin then to talk about the issues from your last letter. How to know when a work is complete? The “finishing” of a work, a character, that characters’s place in your psyche? Still thinking, this morning, that maybe you’re not yet finished with Persy’s world. That his kin may have a place in your next pages, or that the new work may reflect that character in ways you don’t yet know. A word or a phrase that will take flight into the new work ahead?

But your main question for me in your last letter. How to know when a work is finished.

Throughout the day yesterday I worked on a chapter of this new novel. The chapter will be in an anthology and the editor requested a few revisions. A few? All afternoon I went back and back. I fussed with lines. Added lines. Changed the opening a bit. Changed the ending. Words here and there seemed unright. Even this morning, before I hit “send” and sent the work off at last, more changes occurred to me, the ones I should have made.

Is a work ever finished for me? Years ago when I was doing a reading, my host at a small college’s reading series suggested that it seemed “unconfident” that I was still making changes to my work as I read that night. And it’s true that I’m still revising, even as I read aloud from the pages of a published work. Does this show lack of confidence in this words? I know that I think again and again of a poem by Marianne Moore and how, in parentheses below the title of that poem are the words “last revised” and a date.

I don’t know if a work is ever, ever finished for me. Sentences keep tangling and untangling. What is said between the characters shifts, respeaks. The ending alters, even very minutely. The words on the pages come alive, over and over.

Is this a lack of confidence in the words, or some other thing I am still trying to understand? Also years ago, I remember saying to a writer friend that I feared finishing a work because then I’d come to the end of all of it, the writing, the ideas, the origin of the story, and find nothing at all underneath. Then I was working on a memoir. “What,” I asked my friend, “if I finish this work and find that underneath the sadness of this story, lies nothing at all?”

Maybe my grief is some larger thing, some fear of blank space beneath the words, absence beneath the story’s last lines, a hollow beneath an ending. What if there is nothing left? No new story at all?

I know that I love this that you say: “I know that I must let the story unfold, not just on the page, but to me. I know that not knowing the entire story, or not knowing the characters, is a fine place to begin. I know that writing is discovery and exploration.”

I need to let go of the grief at an ending. The fear of an ending. Learn to enjoy the story. Deep play, as Diane Ackerman says. Joy in not-knowing….

With love, Karen

This entry was posted in Completing a novel, Decisions, Grief, Revision, Starting a new work, The Writer's Life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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