On the Art of Finishing

I like the finality of finished things. Those with a definitive end. The end of a book. The end of a day. The end of a project. Perhaps that’s why canning still appeals to me, despite its enormous emotional effort required to begin: I know there is an absolute end to it.

I canned some tomatoes early this morning: immersed them in boiling water, blanching them for sixty seconds apiece, transferred them to a cool water bath, pricked their orange skins and peeled them back, still hot, to reveal a crimson core as juice and pulp trickled down my wrists like lava. I did a dozen other meticulous, tedious tasks to ensure their proper preservation, and at some point in the process, I inevitably wondered why I go to all this work. But in the end, there is always a deep satisfaction in seeing those jars lined up, all prettily in a row. It’s the satisfaction of finality, I’m concluding now. There’s no such thing as going back to add anything. The jars have been packed, boiled, sealed up. Finished.

At least until I open one up, some time down the road, to begin cooking with it!

I’ve been told that a piece of writing is never finished; it just hits a deadline. This thought has helped me come to terms with my struggle of submitting something that I know I’ll want to alter in some way as soon as I send it. At least, it alleviates the pressure I seem to exert on myself that my writing needs to be perfect for that precise, arbitrary moment. Because for me, a piece of writing does not stop living once it’s sent out into the void – it’s not like a sterilized, sealed jar at all. Rather, it continues to evolve and grow, like a tomato still on the vine, and I continue to water and prune, edit and omit, if only in my mind. Maybe this is the appeal — and frustration — of writing: it is never finished.

After composing an email, I will go to my “sent” folder to read it again . . . after it’s been proofread several times pre-sending. Of course, I know this is ridiculous but I continue to read my sent emails anyway: it always seems to me there is something I could have said better. Joan Didion began her essay “Goodbye to All That” by writing, “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends,” and that is true for me, especially as it concerns my writing.

For the past several months, I’ve been working on a writing piece that has consumed most of my creative energy and time. It’s why, despite my good intentions and firm resolve, there was only one, solitary post in August. My piece had a September 1st deadline, which I made, this past Saturday when I sent it in. Strangely, I’ve not gone back to re-read it. Yet. I’m sure I will – it seems inevitable that I will.

I’ve spent months composing this piece: re-writing, re-starting, re-structuring, and re-reading it dozens of times. It’s not like an ephemeral email, glanced over, rarely read a second time. If published, it will be much more lasting, and I suppose, will be preserved in print. But it’s not there right now. Though it seems finished to me because I sent it in, it’s stuck in the void of being considered for publication.

In a big way, I want it to be done already. I want it to be one of those jars of tomatoes, sealed up, stored. Done. While the goal of writing it was for publication, part of me wants it to never make it. Because publication, inevitably, will mean more revision, and I’m dreading what that would involve. Like beginning the canning process all over again. Opening up the jar and tampering with what’s already been (temporarily) sealed.

It’s the struggle between perfectionism and finality. I like the finality of finished things. But I also live and work with evolving, living, things, like writing — of which, as Joan Didion says, “it’s harder to see the end.”

This post itself is coming to an end – I feel it, though it has gone in a very different direction than what I started out with. Perhaps the art of finishing is discerning the fittingness of things: of knowing when it’s time to put it on the shelf . . . or take it off, and open it up.

Question: How do you know when a piece is “finished” in your writing process?