Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How Do You Know When Something Is Finished? (08/15/04)



Featured writer: Betty Winslow



Contributors this month:
Betty Winslow
Charles Markee
Christine Falcone
Colin Berry
D.Jayhne Wilson Edwards
Lizzie Hannon
Marlene Cullen


Betty Winslow



How do I know something is finished? Well, it depends on the project. The finishing point for an article is different from an essay's finishing point, and poems and short fiction pieces are even more different. And a book? I don't have much experience yet with finishing a book (except to read one). Someday...

Meanwhile—

I know something is finished when I have no more to say about the topic.

I know it's finished when I can't polish it any more.

I know it's finished when the deadline is now and I can't take any more time with it (the best reason I know to start projects way ahead, so I have time to rewrite).

I know it's finished when it says just what it needs to say and no more.

And sometimes, I know it's finished when I cannot stand to look at it one more time!

Betty Winslow, Bowling Green, Ohio, who is finished with this now.

Betty Winslow



How do I know something is finished? Well, it depends on the project. The finishing point for an article is different from an essay's finishing point, and poems and short fiction pieces are even more different. And a book? I don't have much experience yet with finishing a book (except to read one). Someday...

Meanwhile—

I know something is finished when I have no more to say about the topic.

I know it's finished when I can't polish it any more.

I know it's finished when the deadline is now and I can't take any more time with it (the best reason I know to start projects way ahead, so I have time to rewrite).

I know it's finished when it says just what it needs to say and no more.

And sometimes, I know it's finished when I cannot stand to look at it one more time!

Betty Winslow, Bowling Green, Ohio, who is finished with this now.

Charles Markee



Writing is never finished and neither is any specific piece ... BUT ... you do stop working on it because of fatigue, deadlines, new ideas or mandatory home projects.

Chuck (from the Kona Coast of the Big Island). He'll come home and become Charles Markee of Santa Rosa, CA

How do you know when something is finished?

  by Christine Falcone

How do you know when something is finished? In the case of writing: when it smells done, invites you to sink your teeth into it like warm bread. When you can step across the threshold that separates life from fiction and forget entirely that you¹re in a world of words. That means all the details have to be perfect, no penny in the pocket like Christopher Reeves in the movie, "Somewhere In Time." If all those bases are covered and the story elevates you, leaves you moved, it's done.

How do you know when something is done? Is anything ever really done? Aren't we just in a state of perpetual transformation? We delude ourselves by segmenting time like the wedges of an orange divided, crossing off days on a wall calendar, a big black "X" for everything past, an empty white box for what we call the future. Time is more like flowering water, I think, unending. Like the title of Alice Walker's recent book, "You Can't Step into the Same River Twice," meaning: you never get that precise moment back.

I think writing and life are a lot like swinging on monkey bars at the playground; you must let go of the previous metal rung to reach ahead to the next on the horizontal ladder above your head. But then, too, there's that moment spent in flux, where you're dangling by one hand, the other empty, open, reaching. Freeze, and you¹re suspended, supported by a combination of thin air and your own flesh and bone. Speed up to real time and you're a blur of motion, fluid, flying, not here nor there, but both coming and going. Letting go and holding on. We contain all that in any given moment. As soon as we're born we're already dying, and in death, we're merely waiting for the Big Wagon Wheel of Life to take another turn. So in that sense, I don¹t think you can ever truly say a thing is "done", only "released".

Christine Falcone, Novato, CA

Colin Berry



"How do you know when something's finished?"

This is one of the most difficult questions I face as a writer. I'm extremely meticulous when I work, and find very few stories I'm unwilling to fiddle with, even years later, with tiny tweaks and tunings. It's painstaking, and it's probably folly — the time I spend fiddling likely doesn't reflect a better story — but it makes ME feel better. Plus, it disqualifies me from having to commit to something new and possibly even more difficult.

No, that's a lie. It's finished at five hundred words, or a thousand , or whatever the editor or the submission guidelines tell you. Nothing more, nothing less. If you write out "five hundred" it gives you one more word than "500." It's like that book report Lucy writes in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown: "It was very very very very good." 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50! Done!

No, sorry, that was a lie, too. For me, it's finished in the same way it starts, which is — how to explain it? Filamentally. In the same way a story starts long before we sit down with our Gel Pens and Legal Pads (or our computers) and begin to write, stories begin with a thread: a conversation overheard, a pea-sized epiphany you have on the way to the video store, a certain way the sun hits your wife's neck. It might be weeks or months, but sometime later you'll be sitting down, trying to bind that filament with another, create a strand, then a string, then a rope with which you can lower yourself into the story.

Finishing works the same way. If you've done it right, the piece dissipates like the last notes of a symphony, or a Sonic Youth song, or the reverberation of colliding cars that wakes you from deepest sleep: it's finished when the echoes following that resounding CRASH fade away into a single filament. Too much, too little, too fast — it's easy to screw it up. But when it's right you know it, and you stop, and lift your hand from the keys, look at the glittering thread you've created, and whisper: Wow.

The Japanese have a word — umami — that means the fifth taste, an essential unnamable something that rounds out the mouth, balances the palate, satisfies us exponentially more than the basic elements (sweet/sour/salty/bitter, plot/character/setting/dialogue) of cooking or writing can create on their own. When it's there, we can taste it. When a story is finished, we know it. The result is far greater than its sum of individual components and, like a splendid meal, doesn't happen nearly often enough.

Colin Berry, Guerneville, CA

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN SOMETHING IS FINISHED?

  by D.Jayhne Wilson Edwards

I have this place in the middle of me, somewhere, which keeps a running tally on how near my piece is to being finished. There is a bit of a satisfied feeling in my chest as I near the finish line, but I believe there is more of that feeling in the area of my stomach. Could the actual place where points are accumulated toward the finish be in my solar plexus? I say that, with some wonderment, since I am not at all sure where the s.p. is even located.

Webster's defines the solar plexus as: "a network of nerves at the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach and in front of the aorta." Looks like I was on the right track, after all!

O.K., so that establishes, for me, the location of my own personal "finish register." But, in addition, there are degrees toward the finish. There are occasions when I reach the finish line with a sort of "Ho, hum, I think this is the best I can do," OR I may tell myself, "This is IT unless I have some better ideas, later." But the real thrill is when I come to the finish with a real glow of pride in that special place I now know to be my Solar Plexus!

D.Jayhne Wilson Edwards, Santa Rosa, Calif.

How do you know when something is finished?

  by Lizzie Hannon

At our house we put the wishbone aside only after giving our Thanksgiving turkey the King Henry treatment, gnawing it down to gristle and hide. Two or three days later my mother would deem the dowsing bone "ready," dried to the correct finish for a fair tug of war between opposing wish makers.

How did finished look? More importantly, how did it feel?

What I recall is the bone was exactly itself, nothing more or less. It dried to a white patina, still held a quiver, sent shivers down the spines of whatever pair of brother/sister had called "dibs" this year. It felt "ready," because over the years my mother's eyes and hands recorded both success, the snap of bone, it's pliant back-- versus the rushed failures, the "v" of the bone wet and stringy in the victor's hand. It just wasn't "right," needed another day sunbathing in the kitchen window on a paper towel.

That wishbone, its purpose and its process mirrors the steps I take to determine if what I've written is done. I want to allow myself the emotional satisfaction of ending a poem, essay, short-story, savor the taste of "doing" on my tongue without rushing out the door the very next minute with my words on a platter, wanting the world to feast, convincing myself its okay to pull the wishbone now, why wait?

I'm slowly learning to enjoy the meal, the minutes/hours spent on a reconnaissance mission for words. I try to recall the last time I e-mailed the first draft of a poem to far away friends in a cloud of wonder only to wake the next morning knowing those words were the equivalent of a Twinkie, okay I guess, but not really the stomach sense of sustenance, satisfaction I wanted to deliver. I wake on that reckoning day within the flour-dusted walls of my childhood kitchen. My mother, with her pirate's knife, lopping off eight loaves of bread from a giant butt of dough, her knuckles red from kneading, wanting it all to be over, but trained to lightly cover each fleshy thigh with a cotton towel, walk away, let the squares rise again, her secret for success.

Patience, practice and another set of eyes, an adult to say, "It's ready" is becoming my recipe for a good finished product. Sometimes the adult is my own internal editor, the coach, the seasoned at the keyboard player who believes there's a bit more kick to be had, urges me to come back to the track tomorrow, try to improve my time. Often it's an editor I trust. At least when I listen to what someone else has to say, see what they say is missing, or believe is still too pink at the bone, I have a choice. I can choose to take their feedback or place my hand on my stomach while reading the work again; full or hungry I ask myself, full or hungry? I take it from there.

Lizzie Hannon, Santa Rosa, CA

Marlene Cullen



How do I know when something is finished? Simple. Simple. Simple. I don't. I did know B.K. Before Kids I could clean my entire house in one day. I could finish a magazine article in one sitting. I could brush my teeth . . . in the morning. I could make my bed before noon. After Kids it would take an entire day to fold one load of laundry. And that was left over from the day before when the clothes were washed and dried. Before Kids I would plan, shop and wrap birthday presents well before the party. After Kids, I wrapped the present in the car as they were knocking on the birthday boy's or girl's house. That is assuming I was able to find the present in the store on the way to the birthday party house. Otherwise, it was a crisp five-dollar bill tucked into the birthday card. Okay, so sometimes it was a limp five-dollar bill. Sigh…

And then my kids were at school all day. "Aha," I thought, "I'll whip through house cleaning and laundry and errands lickety split." But I was so used to being interrupted, that I started interrupting myself. I would start to make the bed, then remember I had laundry to take out of the dryer. I would put the clean clothes on the couch and realize I should wash last night's dinner dishes. Then the phone would ring and as I talked I would notice the dust bunnies. Hanging up the phone, I would get the vacuum cleaner out and notice the unfolded clothes. Abandoning the vacuum cleaner, I would start to fold clothes but remember I needed to defrost chicken for dinner. That couldn't wait. Then I would notice the dirty dishes, which I had better finish before tonight's dinner. Then the phone would ring.

Then it would be time to pick the kids up from school.

All I know is that when I go to bed at night, whatever is done - whether half-way or completely, I consider it finished. Until the next day when I get to start all over.

Marlene Cullen faces unfinished tasks daily in Petaluma, C

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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