My dentist, a master craftsman, is adept at conducting a one-sided conversation.
“How’s the book going?”
“It’s number three, isn’t it?”
“How do you know when you are finished?”
I broke a tooth on Tuesday evening. Upper right four. I scared even myself by grinning in the mirror. I thought, “I’ve got a book to complete. I haven’t got time to fall to bits!” I popped into my dentist the following afternoon and grimaced at the receptionist. She booked me in for Thursday morning. How good is that? I’d anticipated that I might have to be gloomed for a lengthy reconstruction involving scaffolding and an enormous bill, but no! I could be managed conservatively, there and then! It probably won’t require any novocaine (remember that extraordinary scene in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri), but let me know if you are in discomfort. It was a painless procedure, expeditious, and entirely successful. I am full of admiration and gratitude. And it was ludicrously inexpensive. Something like £13.45. I’d have thought that wouldn’t even cover the costs of materials. An amusing (and slightly terrifying) episode took place back at reception. The receptionist keyed the amount into the credit card reader, handed it over, and I rather too speedily keyed in my pin number. The machine added the four digit number to the amount, and all of a sudden I had paid out a sum that would allow my dentist to retire. Fortunately the transaction was cancelled. I think.
But to return to matters of High Art, maybe I should have asked my dentist how he knows when he is finished. I think he, like Mozart, could reasonably reply, “When I have achieved perfection.” We mere mortals must settle for less. I thought about his question afterwards and actually jotted down a list of possible answers. Your task is done when:
- You have created a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you’ve joined them all up.
- You have trawled through the text and eradicated everything that makes you wince.
- You can’t think of a way of making it any better.
- Frankly, you’ve had enough.
- You realise that more is less.
- If you keep going it’s going to affect your mental health.
- You need to file a tax return, then take a holiday.
Undoubtedly the greatest revisionists are composers. You can easily understand why this is so. A piece of music doesn’t really exist except when it is being performed. Therefore every performance is a new edition. So composers are inclined to listen again, and then have second thoughts. Thus Beethoven struggled to write an overture to his opera and came up with Leonora No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and then went off at a complete tangent and wrote the overture to Fidelio. Stravinsky fiddled with his Firebird – 1910, 1919, 1945… Bruckner took the advice of friends and colleagues and tweaked his symphonies; maybe he should have stuck to his guns. Rachmaninoff was famous for cuts; as a concert pianist he would cut his own compositions live in concert, extempore, if he sensed his audience growing restless. Schubert did something unusual. He left the eighth symphony unfinished. But perhaps this was because he realised that the Unfinished Symphony was, in fact, finished.
What about painters? When do they stop? I know very little about fine art, but I can imagine that a pitfall for the artist would be the temptation to keep touching something up until it becomes cluttered with redundant daubs. I guess that could be applied to any creative process. Perhaps the sculptor faces a slightly different challenge. He strives to reveal the sculpture which already exists within the stone. If he keeps going after the point at which he should have stopped, he ceases to be an artist and becomes a vandal. Less is less.
Which brings us to writers. Technology has made revision, practically, very easy. You get your tome up on the computer screen and fiddle about with word choice, and order, to your heart’s content. This is called word processing. It’s a feature of the digital world but in reality it is not new. Churchill, for example, was a great word processor. He would compose a speech and then endlessly fiddle with it, pacing up and down, barking at his secretaries, searching for euphony. He famously berated one of his typists for typing in single, rather than in double space. He needed the space to make revisions in pen and ink.
Mind you, revision by word processor can be overdone. All you are doing is tinkering. “He lunged at me with a bloodcurdling yell.” (Not my dentist; he is the gentlest of souls.) “He came at me with an enraged scream.” “He screamed at me with a bloodcurdling lunge…” You’re just shifting deckchairs.
Yet on the whole, writers are happy to let go. They cast their bread upon the waters and don’t look back. I give them (us?) credit for that. Let it go. “Stet”, as the proof readers say. So how, and when, do you decide that your baby is viable, and robust and fit enough to survive on her own? You read through the text; you might even enjoy the content. Then you come upon a passage that grates. You squirm. You strive to iron out all the glitches. When do you stop? Face it, you could go on for ever, in the relentless hunt to identify and exterminate cliché. Eventually, you reach a point where everything hangs together, there are no lacunae in the elucidation of plot, and it all more or less makes sense.
I’ll just run a quick spell check.