by Virginia Parker Staat
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
~ Leonardo da Vinci
I spent four years trying to write a dream. It was an amazing dream about a children’s book I had written. In my dream the picture book was completed. I sat with the book in my lap and turned each page, looking at the intricate watercolor drawings that accompanied the text and savoring every word with joy. The book even had a title, The Day the Iceman Thawed. But bringing this dream down to earth turned out to be one of the most difficult writing tasks I ever encountered.
During the next four years, I easily abandoned the 32-page book a dozen times. One of the things that helped me through those years of frustration was knowing that singer/songwriter Billy Joel often dreamed songs and had the same problem bringing them down to sheet music. Even when he successfully accomplished the task, he felt that the earthly version paled in comparison to the dream. It certainly was the same for my Iceman story.
Abandoning your work is an important writing tool. There are three definitive reasons to abandon your writing: First, when your work isn’t working. Secondly, when there is no hope of its resuscitation. And thirdly, when your piece is completed.
When my work isn’t working, like when writing Iceman, I often let it “heal itself” by putting the piece in a drawer and leaving it… for weeks, months, or even years. I find that letting a story incubate allows the piece to work out its issues on its own. When I pick it back up, it is fresh, and I can easily see both its flaws and goldenness. After such a long period of time, I am also no longer attached to anything I have written. It makes it easier for me to edit… with a hatchet, if necessary.
While plenty of my story beginnings have ended up in the second category, I have only had one major manuscript fall into the permanently abandoned pile … a 268-page young adult novel. It took nine dedicated months to write the piece, but it nagged on my conscience. It sat in a drawer for years. Each time I pulled it out, I became less and less satisfied with it. It felt like a decent piece of writing and had a good story line. The problem was with me… I had changed. The story no longer represented who I was. I came to the conclusion that I had to let it go. Strangely, it was somehow freeing when I hit the delete button on my computer and shredded all evidence of the book.
It is the third reason to abandon your writing that causes most of us to stumble. When is a work completed? We writers can get caught up in words, grammar, punctuation, and lyrics so much that we refuse to let a piece fledge. Perhaps one more tweak… one more edit… one more check of the rhythm… then it will be perfect.
While I hate to admit it, perfection is not possible in writing. Creativity is never finished. We have the choice to either abandon our writing to another day (i.e., put it in a drawer to heal itself), abandon it completely, or abandon it to a publisher. If Leonardo DaVinci, the man who painted the Mona Lisa and Last Supper, can say “art is never finished, only abandoned,” then surely I can concur. For me, perfection is available only in my dreams.