We write. We revise.
Where does it end? That is a tougher question than where does revision begin. Years ago, I met a woman at a novel writers workshop who wrote the most eloquent prose. For the workshop we had to submit 100 pages of our novels to be critiqued over a four-day weekend. She had turned in only 30. It was all she had written. But in those 30 pages she had set up a scene that was so enticing, used gorgeous but not over the top language, and demonstrated what a perfect intro to a novel should look like. I was so jealous. She explained that she only had 30 pages because she had gone over and over these 30 pages revising, revising, revising to get them just right. Oh, I thought, that what it takes: pouring over every word, double triple checking my sequence, my choices, the nuances until they are exactly what they should be. Would I have that kind of patience? I wasn’t sure I could be as diligent as she.
The workshop was intense. Four days of grueling input and receiving of critique. The participants became very close, as often happens in a group like this. A year later we had a phone date as she lived in the Midwest and I lived in California. She was still revising those same 30 pages. “I have to get it right,” she said, “before I can move on to the next scene.” Again, I wondered how to have such patience. I was sending my manuscript off to agents at the time. I wondered if I had done enough revising.
Five years later we spoke on the phone again. My novel that she had helped critique was out and hit the bestseller list. She was still revising those 30 pages. Maybe my writing will never be as polished as hers but, I wondered, how could she still be revising if she doesn’t know what happens, what the novel is about yet, what the ending looks like? Those 30 pages will never be perfect if she doesn’t know the whole picture. She could revise to the end of her days, but until she finishes the novel, she’ll never really know what she’s revising. She created a Sisyphean task.