How do I make my story just right? That’s a question I get often as often as I ask it myself. I hear that as much as I hear, “How will I know when I’m done?” This is a particularly irksome aspect of making art (or writing literature – or making sculpture – or painting a portrait, etc…).
My mother would paint barns when I was a child. No, she didn’t put a coating of Sherwin Williams on the sides of an outdoor building (but she also did do that). She painted pictures of dusty, old, dilapidated barns, places I’d often stare at and dream of hiding in while reading a good book to while away the summer hours. She loved to depict outdoor scenes, but there was one with a picture of the Hunt – horse riders in their black hard hats, high leather boots and fancy, red coats as they followed their hounds through the fields. It’s an energetic picture where the hounds are racing and all four of the horses are jumping a rather high wooden fence, but two of the horses at the center of the piece are missing their back legs. I often shudder at the result when the horses land. I ask my mother when she will finish the painting. She sighs and says, “Oh, some day when the feeling strikes.” It’s been thirty years now, perhaps I shall buy her some oil paints this Christmas and task her with a New Year’s Eve resolution. The trouble with this is that she had explained that when was working on the piece and she had gotten to this point in the painting process, she felt that she could go no further. Oddly, the rest of the painting is finished with all of its details just horses have no back legs.
She spoke to me on the subject of painting. She told me that when other people view your work, they see it as a whole piece and regard it either with wonder or disgust, but never see its components. But when you, the artist, view your work, all you can see is its little flaws. She told me that she never really knew when exactly she was done. “I could tinker with it all day, go on and on, adding details here and painting over them there.” At a certain point, she admitted that she could go on too far and spoil the painting – and doing so without knowing it. “After a while, you simply give up,” she told me. “You just stand back and say, ‘okay, that’s enough.'”
But where is that point? How can we know? There is a zen to knowing when to stop. Perhaps it’s akin to the process described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. You simply have to do it enough to know when to stop. Unfortunately, you have to do end the process at the right point every time in order to develop this instinct, but you have to know when to stop in order to know where that point is, an unfortunate Catch-22.
For this I don’t have any satisfying answers. I suppose you could go off of the reactions of others provided you don’t have friends with bad taste or friends who lovingly only give you positive support. An example of this is Florence Foster Jenkins who was one of history’s most famous bad opera singers who was constantly told by friends how wonderful her singing was. She even made recordings and gave bad public performances. It must have been a shock when the reviewer from the New York Times gave her a mocking review.
But even the review of others, no matter their expertise, is still coming from a matter of opinion and taste which you might not share (it’s very rarely the case). And it could be that your work is, in fact, terrible or just that the person reviewing it simply doesn’t understand what you are presenting. So other’s opinions are only limited in their usefulness.
You could base it off of your own judgement in comparison to the work of those artists you love, but that would be unfair – they already have years more experience and their work is unique to their character as yours is to you.
So, surely, there must be some sort of ultimate litmus test. To this I only answer with a story. This is a story I often tell fellow writers. It’s a zen story and I never tell it the same way twice (how zen of me) and, to be honest, I’m not even certain that this is the original story (perhaps someone will write in and correct me – how very un-zen-like of them).
The story is of an aging zen monk, a zen master, who met a gardener. The gardener was an admirer of the monk, he wanted to learn the ways zen from the monk and become a master himself. He offered to help the master with his garden in exchange for lessons. The master obliged him, especially seeing as he was getting on in years and was having a hard time keeping up any ways. So, the gardener went to work and did his best work, getting the garden as neat and orderly as possible. When he finished, he felt he’d done more than any other job he’d worked on. He showed it to the monk who only stood and frowned. “What’s the matter?” asked the concerned gardener. But monk could not figure out what it was and could only respond, “It’s not quite right.” The down-hearted gardener sulked, until inspiration struck and he ran up to the cherry blossom tree and shook it until the blossoms spread messily down the side of the little hill. The monk stood back and smiled, “Yes, there, that’s perfect.”
To me, the moral of the story is obvious. A story should be as neat and orderly as possible, but in order to be perfect be a little messy. So perhaps my mother’s instincts were right and the horses should never have back legs added. Perhaps because a human being is not a perfect thing, but messy and with flaws no matter how neat and orderly that person tries to be, perhaps also because art should be a reflection of life, that a story should not fit all together neatly in a perfect framework (perhaps, shudder! some of the facts are wrong, not that!) and that is the best way to get the most perfect piece. So, stop when you feel you need to stop, stand back or put it in a drawer for a month and look it over and get a feel for what really affects you and what leaves you cold. Perhaps you’ll know that you’re done when you can stand back and say, “Yes, that’s enough.”