To Authorize or To Abandon:
How Do You Know When a Work of Art Is Done?
How do you know when your poem or novel, your painting, symphony or dance piece is finished and ready to be shared with others?
How do you know when it is time to stop revising, tinkering, perfecting and let it go out in the world?
My friend Sands Hall, novelist, memoirist and teacher, tells a story about someone asking the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Richard Ford that question: How does he know when a novel or short story of his is done?
He responded, “When I have authorized every word.”
Author, Authorize, Authority
When she tells the story, Sands Hall notes the etymological connection between author, authority and authorize.
To be an author (a creator, originator) is to authorize what you have written (“give formal approval or sanction to,” also “confirm as authentic or true”), in other words, to assume authority (command, power, “capacity for inspiring trust”) over the material.
Certainly, this kind of manic care in the details is something I have learned to practice as a poet, to question every word, every comma, every line break, every formal choice. Is it exactly what I mean? Does it serve the poem? Is it the best choice I can make in that spot?
Beware of Perfectionism
And yet the goal of authorizing every word or gesture or musical note is an ambitious one, and one that could leave many artists stalled at the gate, never completing a work of art, sometimes never beginning one.
Perfectionism and fear of finishing are two of the major forms of creative block I have identified in the artists I have worked with.
Hence, this ideal may not be the best one to aspire to, especially early on in your art-making life. When starting out or re-starting, I believe it serves you better to generate more art than to obsess over any single piece. It is important to get the flow going and keep it going. And also to keep your joy in the process alive.
But, as a beginner or intermediate artist (or really at every stage), it is also very helpful to get feedback from others. We cannot see our own blind spots. We cannot see our own work clearly or how it affects others. So, getting good feedback from those who understand our work and have deep knowledge of the art form or are lovers of the art form (audience members) helps us grow as artists and refine our creations.
There is a balance to be struck between being a perfectionist who never lets anything be finished (artistic constipation) and being in love with everything you create without working to hone it at all (the dilettante).
Or Do I Just Abandon It?
Contrast the approach of authorizing every word, then, with this famous quote by the French poet Paul Valéry: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
This is the popularized, abbreviated rendering of what he actually wrote (as translated by Rosalie Maggio in The Quote Verifier and posted on QuoteInvestigator.com):
“In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned; and this abandonment, of the book to the fire or to the public, whether due to weariness or to a need to deliver it for publication, is a sort of accident, comparable to the letting-go of an idea that has become so tiring or annoying that one has lost all interest in it.”
Celebrated poets W. H. Auden and Marianne Moore, both of whom revised their work obsessively agreed with Valéry on this. At some point they simply moved on from a poem, having done all they could.
So, which is it? Do we authorize or abandon? How do we know when our work is done?
It Is Different Every Time
For every artist and for each work of art, you will have to answer this in your own way.
I was once hired by a writer to edit his work, and when we met the first time he told me he wanted some objective standards by which to measure if his work was good or not. He was dismayed when I told him, “There are none.”
In my experience, with some pieces I feel they are done. There is a sense of completeness and harmony, of having more or less achieved what I set out to do. Occasionally I feel a piece is perfect in itself, in its aims and construction, only to later revise it, when someone points out a new suggestion or a blind spot.
More often, I reach a point in revision where I realize that any further tinkering is likely to kill the life in the piece. That, like the mistakes intentionally woven into Persian carpets so that they do not aspire to God’s perfection, the moments of awkwardness in my poem are a part of its aliveness.
I love editing and tend to revise my poems and essays many times, sometimes radically, sometimes just changing a few words or punctuation marks, sometimes I do this for years. In fact, it is often hard for me to read something I have written and not start tinkering with it again.
But with some pieces I feel too distant from the moment of creation to keep working on them. I cannot re-enter the life of the piece. I have to let them stand as they are, in all their imperfections, as a small monument to the time, place, impulse that formed them.
I have, on many occasions, made changes to a piece only to wind up, weeks or months later, reverting to the former version, realizing it is better. I do not consider this effort wasted, however, as the act of revising and re-revising teaches me things about art and my own aesthetic.
When performing music or dance, the deadline of the performance forces me and my collaborators to call a piece done, at least for the time being. In fact, in the groups I work with, we find we need those scheduled performances in order to focus us and bring work to some state of completion. So, we often set performance dates before we even begin making pieces or early on in the process.
Because I am both an improviser and a composer, I experience making art both in the moment with no chance to revise it and lingering over the construction of pieces for months or years. I love both processes, and both have enormous value and validity.
Do Your Best and Let It Go
So, the short answer to the question this essay began with is: You don’t know.
You make your best guess. You work as long as you can given your deadlines or your abilities. You set it aside and come back to it if you can with a fresh pair of eyes and ears. You get feedback from trusted others. You work as long as you can without killing the life in the piece or your own enthusiasm for art-making. (Please be sure to keep that alive!)
And then you bless your creations and send them out in the world to make their way, so that they can bless others.
Chime in here: How do you know when your work is done?