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    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Although I Search Myself It’s Always Someone Else I See

I spent the weekend putting the finishing touches on a writing project. I’m talking everything from catching typos, to seeing that a scene was missing, to sharpening up some dialogue, to making a final decision about the last scene in which I have taken a chance. Crazy or canny? I feel like a nervous bride on her wedding night. A clown in a dunking booth. Polly want a cracker. This is the moment no one has been waiting for.

How do you know you’re finished? How do know if it says what you want it to say? If it says what it needs so say? How do you know you’re ready to let it loose. What happens if the world’s indifference greets you with open arms? Does it matter to your future work? How do catch a cloud and pin it down? How do you pour a new foundation, pull a weed, remember those beautiful little packets of garden seed?

60 Responses

  1. Paraphrasing William H. Gass translating Paul Valéry:

    No work is ever done but only, finally, in grief, abandoned.

  2. I think that’s what “faith” is.

  3. If there’s a deadline, it’s finished then. If there’s not, it’s never finished.

    This is frequently something of a problem. And that is something of an understatement.

  4. Shit. I don’t know, but I like a self-inflicted deadline, followed by the keen eyes of some generous ms readers who will tell me exactly what is NOT done.

  5. I like what Tina Brown said on the subject : You don’t finish a book, you abandon it.

  6. “How do you know you’re finished?”

    I don’t consider a piece finished until it’s published. As for my knowing when I’m finished, to know that is to die.

    “How do know if it says what you want it to say? If it says what it needs so say?”

    Usually I’m pretty sure I’ve used exactly the words I want to use. I don’t know if that means it says what I want it to say or what it needs to say.

    “How do you know you’re ready to let it loose.”

    Sometimes it takes me a long time to get a piece into shape. Sometimes I let it loose before it’s ready.

    “What happens if the world’s indifference greets you with open arms? Does it matter to your future work?”

    The world’s indifference means nothing to me, I know what I’m doing. I am here now.

    “How do catch a cloud and pin it down?”

    I’ve been rained and snowed upon, but I’ve never caught a cloud and pinned it down.

    “How do you pour a new foundation, pull a weed, remember those beautiful little packets of garden seed?”

    As to how you do it, you just do it. It’s what you trained for. It’s what you’ve given your life to.

  7. Maybe it’s done when any more cuts make you bleed. It’s time to give it to your editor. And get out the bandages.

  8. I have a reader I trust.

  9. I don’t know about done but I know I should stop when my husband is talking and suddenly says, “Are you here or in the alternate universe?”

  10. “A painting is never finished, it only stops in interesting places.” I didn’t have time to find a definitive reference for this, so I’ll lay it on Picasso or Paul Gardner’s shoulders. The other quote about art posted here is attributed on the internet to practically everyone from Oscar Wilde to Tina Brown, to Leonardo da Vinci, so go figure.

  11. “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.” — Annie Dillard

    So I guess the work has to either die or get better before you can quit.

    • That quote is a gift, Tulasi-Priya. I’ve spent all morning looking for somebody new to hate, and you served her on a platter ringed with with watercress and spite. Annie Dillard. That quote is a literary mirage. On first glance you imagine there’s substance there, but you look closer and it’s just a trick of the light.

      I hope it’s an off-the-cuff remark she made and not something she intentionally wrote down. Idiotic on at least three levels.

      I’m more interested in the chance Betsy took. What do you think she did? Killed someone? Changed viewpoint? Pulled a Cormac McCarthy and turned a perfectly good genre novel into a self-conscious literary wank?

      • Anytime, August. Seriously, I love Annie Dillard, but often don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. I just wanted to post a less familiar quotation. Blog commenting is my genre, and I like keeping it fresh and unpredictable. If it draws you out of hiding, I’m happy.

        I can’t begin to guess what Betsy’s chance was. It would be nice if someone (you, for instance) were to keep track of all her cryptic remarks and get her to follow up on them some day.

        >>Pulled a Cormac McCarthy and turned a perfectly good genre novel into a self-conscious literary wank?<<

        And thank you for that, reminding me that I don't need to aspire to being an Annie Dillard (or Michael Ontdaaje) wannabe.

      • I’d pay even to be considered an Ondaatje wannabe.

        Maybe Betsy let the father kill the sons (metaphorically or literally) instead of the reverse.

      • a monkey in a red suit.

      • >>a monkey in a red suit.<<

        The chance you took? Or Annie Dillard's comparison of writing a book to sitting with a dying friend?

  12. Congratulations on your literary lost weekend, Betsy. May you wake up tomorrow, look at your work, and simply smile.

  13. I’m very inspired by the sculptor Isabel Borgatta. I deliver food to her for God’s Love We Deliver. Her marble sculptures of women are amazing, each one alive and breathing. She’s got a big show opening on March 1st and she doesn’t stop working. She’s in her late eighties, not well, but she’s never satisfied. She keeps sanding and chiseling and will continue until the last minute they haul her sculptures away for the show. What an inspiration she is to all artists. The point is, she’s never satisfied, never finished. She just doesn’t stop, no matter how ill she feels. Her show, Myth and Metaphor, will be at the Century Association, 7 West 43rd Street from March1 through the 31st.

    • Wish I could see her work. She sounds fascinating.

    • I googled her and there are some adorable images of her in her studio with (presumably) her children. She also looks pregnant. They’re from Life magazine, I’m guessing, late fifties or early sixties.

      • Her studio is amazing. I swear, there is a higher vibration in that room. A silent buzz in the air. I’ve seen some of her sculptures online, but the flat images just don’t do them justice.

  14. From Six Degrees of Separation:

    Flan: I remembered asking my kids’
    second-grade teacher: “Why are all your students geniuses?” Look at the first grade – blotches of green
    and black. The third grade – camouflage. But your grade, the second grade…Matisses, every one. You’ve made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade. What is your secret?

    Teacher: I don’t have any secret. I just know when
    to take their drawings away from them.

  15. When your edits start making the manuscript worse rather than better, then you might have a draft done.

    But done done? Shoot. You might be done when the second proofs roll in and looking at them either makes you want to barf or sing.

  16. I don’t know yet. Soon, I hope.

  17. I usually find that those last-minute, harried changes I make are good ones. But the ones I think of after I’ve sent the ms. off are the best!

  18. When the check is cashed.

  19. A book isn’t even done after it’s published. Best not to read it then. It can drive you crazy.

  20. I find your situation enviable–to have such a problem!

  21. Not done. Just due.

  22. The novel is done when I see it for what it is, and I either hate it or love it. This can take years. Or about ten minutes. True story: I had a novel scheduled for publication with Avon, until, ENFIN, I knew that I hated it. Bought the damn thing back and chucked it. That one’s done!

  23. I don’t know. I try to know when it’s time to turn loose of it. Think of it this way: how many times in your editing/agenting life has a MS come to you that was done, finished?

  24. It’s done when I finally get tired of screwing with it and turn my attention to something new.

  25. Most days I read this blog and all your clever comments and feel like I can play. But this question today — How do you know when it’s finished? — has me sitting here at my desk, scrolling through my 7-years project in a panic, certain that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.

    • i know. i know. i know.

      the anxiety from this post has hiding in my bed, buried deep beneath my blankets (like the way you do when you’re too depressed even to drink coffee).

      ugh. i don’t know when i’m done.

      this is what’s so freaking scary about my WIP and a huge reason why i’m not finishing my revisions. how am i supposed to know when they’re actually finished? the only thing i can know for sure is that they’re not finished. so if i literally do not finish the last 30 pages of rewrites, at least i know. you know?

      i’d add some marianne willamson quote here about, “…our greatest fear” but i don’t want to send august off the deepend.

    • Panic could be a sign you’re done.
      If we knew what we were doing, we’d be doing something else.

  26. The polishing could be endless but if a trusted reader gets what I was going for, it’s done enough.

  27. D.H. Lawrence wrote 3 versions of Lady Chatterly’s Lover before he stopped. I wonder why he didn’t write a 4th

  28. I keep going with a project until I start to realize it’s perhaps not as brilliant as I thought it was (maybe about 6 months after I semi-finished it), then I quit writing altogether..until I get another idea…

  29. A deadline, a deadline, there has to be a deadline.

  30. Put it aside, walk away; wait a few sunsets and a couple of dawns. Drink some whiskey while waiting for the next full moon. Throw your pages to the coyotes and see if it survives the slobber, shit, fangs and blood.

  31. But they are such beautiful seed packets.

  32. “This is the moment no one has been waiting for.” ❤

    I like to say that no piece of writing is ever finished, just published.

    I think it's Eugenio Montale who writes about the third life of a creative piece — the interaction between writer/written work, reader, and the memories/experiences each brings to bear in the writing/reading process — it gives the writing a life and reality beyond what's on the page. And if the writing is alive in the reading, it's never really finished.

    "Does it matter to your future work?" I think so, yes. Tao Lin's antics have branded him a silly kid to my mind, and I doubt if I'll ever be able to take his writing seriously. Likewise, need we look beyond headlines like "After his Oprah fiasco, James Frey steps on a turd with 'I Am Number Four'" to see that our literary efforts and foibles mark us forever?

  33. I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged…I had poems that were re-written so many times I suspect it was just a way of avoiding sending them out.” ~ Erica Jong

  34. when the lie is revealed the story is complete

  35. With my first novel the story was done when the character told me it was done. However, This I know, I will be at my signings and as I’m reading to the audience I will be marking stuff in my head that I should have changed and feeling embarrassed that I hadn’t .

  36. One of my favorite short story writers published a story in a magazine and then republished (rewritten, and he had the writes to do so) in another magazine. He stated that even his publish work was never finished. I like that… I don’t ever have to feel the pressure of being done. Yay!

  37. Writing is like building a boat. It’s never finished. Eventually, you just launch it.

  38. Cormac McCarthy haters fuck off, sorry, that’s as nice as I can be.
    How do you pour a new foundation, pull a weed, remember those little packets of garden seed? That’s beautiful Betsy, I love it. As for the big question of how to know when something is finished – damnit, I wish I knew. Isn’t it a little bit like a mamma bird pushing a fledgling out of the nest? I am supremely confident in your ability to know the answer though (please say you know!).

  39. […] Echos of comments left on Betsy’s blog the other day. […]

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