You aren’t alone in wondering if you are done with a piece of writing…
W. H. Auden is famously quoted saying that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. He was actually quoting Paul Valéry in an interview at Swarthmore, but no matter. It is an adage that many a poet, including myself, has wanted to disprove as we grind our editing pencils to stubs in an effort to perfect a poem so we can call it finished.
I am fond of reading the accounts writers give of their writing routines and insights about their process. I have an entire shelf of books dedicated to this, but don’t find the finishing of poems often addressed by poets. I attended a reading by Donald Hall once, and when it came time for questions I asked him the big question: “How do you know when a poem is finished?” He paused, deep in thought, gazing down at the newly published book in his hand, then answered, “I just changed one of these as I read it.”
If Donald Hall can feel the presence of an editing pencil in his hand while reading from his published book, so can we all. I continue to not know for sure when a poem is finished. The proof of my book, As If Anything Can Happen, had to be torn literally from my hands during my final read through, or I would have never stopped fiddling.
All this came to mind when I recently saw the above photo of Charles Dickens’ notes in his prompt copy of the A Christmas Carol he read from on tour in the USA in the 1840s.* The Gothamist has it in their collection in New York. I loved seeing that his notes were not just cues to himself, but he actually crossed out words, tightened his sentences. Sure, it was for oral reading, and he probably felt that the manuscript didn’t need editing on the page… or maybe he was just like the rest of us, never quite finished, never quite satisfied that we have perfected that little baby, but at some point we send it out into the world as is.
*PS Dickens considered his trip the book tour from hell, but surely his mood on tour is not the reason for the markup in his book.