How do you know when you’re done with a story?
I may be the only professed Avid Reader (yes, in all caps) to have no physical memory of devouring To Kill a Mockingbird. With the publishing world atwitter at the release of Go Set a Watchman, both novels are making headlines again.
On returning from a 3-day writing retreat last night, I was excited to dig into my latest issue of Entertainment Weekly with X-Men Apocalypse on the cover and my favorite sections–The Must List and, of course, the book reviews.
Several days of intense workshops, emotional sharing and connecting with other writers had me a little wrung out and some light reading for fun was just the thing I needed. I grabbed a wine cooler, Jamaican Me Crazy, and plopped on the chaise lounge under our giant Silver Maple in the back yard.
Sidenote: Should my husband and I ever divorce, it will be due to whiskers (I hope they’re whiskers) in the bathroom sink or too many cinematic iterations of the X-Men. I am so sick of this franchise.
When I eventually reached the Books section, Reviewer Tina Jordan had the following to say about To Kill a Mockingbird which was originally carved from the larger manuscript that became Lee’s new novel:
“Lee’s formidable editor, Tay Hohoff, read the manuscript and said something along the lines of ‘The flashback scenes, where Scout is a young girl? That’s your novel. Forget the Jean Louise stuff.’ Hohoff spent years coaxing these bursts of genius into a very different book. That kind of artistic nurturing has all but disappeared from publishing.”
My reaction was maybe the illustrious editor coaxed To Kill a Mockingbird out of Lee, but maybe it wasn’t the story she wanted to tell.
Not 24 hours earlier, I was standing in the oak-paneled living room of Ragdale House with our teacher for the weekend, Author Patricia McNair. We were discussing a flash fiction story I’d shared during the group readings that evening. With a few other writers, we talked about MFA programs, students, how to get to the meat of a story, etc.
I wanted to know if I’d done the story right. Did I pull it off? What I really wanted was for the teacher to tell me “Yes, you did a flash fiction piece correctly. You may now submit this because it is done.” Not…going….to….happen.
I do not know the history of Harper Lee’s relationship with her editor. It’s possible, after her editor was finished with the manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee lay prostrate at his/her feet thanking the editor for coaxing exactly the book she was hoping to write. Though the review referenced here for the second novel refers to it as being “all about the money,” Lee’s first novel is revered.
If we believe all the author acknowledgments in all the novels on bookstore shelves, writers love their editors. Editors are an invaluable resource to writers, but writers have to write their story. I write my story. Harper Lee wrote her story. You write your story.
Often, we’re asking the wrong questions as writers. We’re asking, “how do I do it?” or “what do I need to do to get it published?”. I was asking the wrong question about my flash fiction piece and maybe a lot of my writing.
Patty suggested writers ask themselves: Does this say what I want it to say? Does it convey the mood, the character, the sense of a place I was going for . . . and if not, why not? What if my character tried this instead? Are there paths I haven’t explored?
Constantly seeking feedback, or feedback from the wrong people, can do our stories more harm than good. If we’re lucky enough to have a mentor or access to professional editing, we would be foolish not to take advantage. But we have to trust our own voice and commit to working with a piece until we have said what we wanted to say.
This takes practice and perseverance. If the days of “artistic nurturing” are gone from publishing, we’ll just have to nurture ourselves.
How do you approach rewriting your stories? How do you know when you are done? How do you nurture your writing life? Am I the only one who can’t remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird?