By Sue Trollip
How do you know when it’s time to say hasta la vista to your baby?
Bob Dylan perhaps had the best comeback because the answer, my friends, is too variable to be anything but ‘blowing in the wind’.
I recently read an article by Jerry Weiss in The Artist’s Magazine called ‘In praise of the unfinished’, in it he wrote:
‘At its worst, the desire to finish a work can produce a kind of embalming, a waxed sheen of good intentions that smothers whatever life an idea once possessed.’
And although Weiss was talking about paintings I thought it applied well to manuscripts too. Editing is a tricky job. Writers may think it easier to look at a canvas and say, it’s finished when it’s full of paint, but painters are also in the habit of moving people, and trees and buildings to get a better composition.
In my brain the voice that cries out for one more edit is loud. Another voice, the one that ponders about over-editing, is quieter but no less worrying, because that waxed sheen is not what any author artist wants. It is the roughness that brings texture to the text and by texture I mean reader participation.
Weiss mentions Whistler’s paintings saying that their worth is ‘owed as much to omission as it is to elaboration.’
He had me at omission. I do not like authors to paint each flower for me, I much prefer to picture the garden for myself. Damon Galgut does this best with too many examples to mention and then there’s Lionel Shriver. One of her sentences that I can’t seem to forget because it paints a magnificent picture in my head, goes:
‘the buses bursting with cackling passengers three times over capacity and aflap with chickens’ .
These are authors who know exactly when to finish.
The painter William Merrit Chase believes that ‘it takes two to paint. One to paint and the other to stand by with an axe to kill him before he spoils it.’ That’s a tad grim William, but oh so true. Weiss claims that, ‘When done properly, an “unfinished” work states the essentials and leaves the rest to the imagination.’
Now as soon as I work out whether the essentials are in place I’ll have my answer!