Venus on Mars

Abandonment is not an option!

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on July 31, 2011

Valery, Having Second Thoughts After Abandoning His Poem

One of my favorite quotes about writing is from poet Paul Valery: “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.”  (He most likely said this in French and I’m sure it sounded pithier that way.)

Abandonment conjures up feelings of sudden forlornment, abject misery, a mounting fear of having to go it all alone without knowing how- but these feelings are attached to the one being left. I think the emotions are much more complex in the mind of the abandoner (i.e. Valery, all poets, all creative types): the necessity of abandoning, the consequences of abandoning, the eventual liberation that comes after abandoning and then what all comes after that.

There is an assumed bond between abandoner and abandonee – they have been close for a period of time, but something happens to sever that connection – a change in circumstances, fortunes, ambitions. Both parties may be left wounded, but we tend to put more confidence in the one who has chosen to walk away. This is a decision, and one makes decisions, especially the difficult ones, only after much comtemplation. The abandoner is not only walking away from something, but, sooner or later, toward something else. Moving forward is always a good thing, right?

But so often in romantic novels and movies, the abandoner turns mid-stride and heads back into the arms of the abaondonee, almost as if a mental switch has been thrown in reverse. The two are reunited, mutually aglow, and we know this moment will last forever (because that’s the end of the story – the credits are rolling).

So it may be for writers and their manuscripts. I shudder even as I think about the implications of this arrangement.

The tricky part for the writer – or for any creative type – is deciding exactly when to walk away. I think all artists get to the point when they feel like they’re only tinkering with work that already feels complete, perfect, finished, but they have a difficult time recognizing this moment, and then acting on it. Finessing the poem a little more, replacing this word here, adding a line break there, is akin to the painter adding more blue to the ocean, or the musician abruptly offsetting a rhythm – do any of these things actually make the work any better?

A novel is such a big thing – an enormous collection of words, really – that tinkering in one place may in fact dislodge something previously and carefully crafted in another place. The text is a huge landscape and you can’t just adjust this feature – repave a road, plant a tree, make it rain – and expect the whole thing to maintain its integrity as a place. In order to do justice to the act of writing, even more so to the act of rewriting, the author has to climb back in with a total commitment to live there, to wallow in and  possibly to get so mired in it to the point that extracting oneself becomes a near impossibility.

Sometimes we depend on someone else to say to us, stop already! That’s why I was so ecstatic to hear the literary agent tell me few weeks ago, after reading my manuscirpt, “it’s great – don’t change anything.”

I’d been given permission to walk away! And this felt like completion, not abandonment, the distinction being that I no longer needed to engage with this work because my manuscript no longer needed me – my book was done and no further tinkering would improve it further. I could move on to the next one (I am a serial novelist – never more than one at a time).

So why did I dive back in yesterday, starting at the beginning again and trying to work my way through the three-hundred-plus pages, feeling like I was swimming backwards, ineffectually, through quicksand? Making not only small adjustments (“spectacular” is a much better word here than “ultimate”), but also using my writer’s muscles – which I have developed over the past few years – to heft entire chapters and place them elsewhere. I even banished a few passages I’d always considered vital.

Now I must decide whether my efforts are heroic or merely laughable. Significant improvements or mere busywork.

And how to decide all over again when it’s time to roll the credits.


One Response

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  1. Jeanette said, on August 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    F. Scott Fitzgerald sent rewrites, galley proofs, and changes to Gatsby from France to New York….until after the book was published….and that was in 1925 before instant messaging or google docs. His little novel still has folks arguing about orgastic or orgiastic. I hope film credits are in your future, too.


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