The Write Words

One of my favorite quotations comes from T.S. Eliot:

“The poet is occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.”

I wrote this statement on an index card that I kept tacked to the wall above my desk for sixteen years. In that time, I also wrote some terrible poetry, but that’s a different story, entirely; one I’ll likely never tell.

What strikes me most about Eliot’s statement is his recognition that we have experiences, sentiment, insights we cannot verbalize – at least not easily – no matter how earnestly we may wish to share them.

The writer seeks to capture an erupting emotion but the subject, the verb, the objects do not cooperate. A precise adjective slips away. An adverb (rarely, please) proves elusive.

photo (49)

Still, I try.

I believe in vain that if I keep at it long enough, if I swap words or manipulate syntax one more time, I’ll get it right. But at what point do I stop? When do I accept what I’ve written is the best it will be? I’ve yet to find the answer to this question no matter how often I turn to T.S. Eliot.

My students used to struggle with their essays. “I know this paragraph sucks,” they’d admit with a shrug to which I would respond, “Then fix it.”

They’d look at me as if I were speaking Latin.

“I can’t fix it, Mrs. Gardner. It’s already written.”

Of course.

This was one-part laziness, two-parts not realizing their own power over words. I used to remind my students they were the ones in charge. Words do not control you. Words are not alive. They exist for your use. You control the words. So if they aren’t right, keep working on them until they are.

I find this advice humorous now.

How do we know when our work is right?

When I read something I’ve written – a sentence or two paragraphs, an entire page – I often feel as if I’m playing with fresh clay. (I’ll refrain from saying literally here because I know my words aren’t actually clay; yet they feel pliable, something I can push or pull, shift at will.)

I revisit my work again and again, making changes large and small, over and over.

And over.

Sometimes what I read seems written by a stranger, appearing on my screen as if by magic.

I came up with that? Huh.

Just as often, I don’t see what I’ve said at all, but instead see what I think I meant to say.

Eventually the time comes when I approach a piece I’ve been picking at for many hours (days, months, years) and the sentences have hardened. They feel like old clay that cannot be shaped anymore. Not without cracking the pot.

Is it funny? Poignant? 

Did I accidentally use Latin? 

It doesn’t matter. For better or worse, the words are done and I have to let them go even if I suspect they aren’t quite right.

So my friends – whether you are writing or parenting, spouse-ing or human be-ing –

I ask you this:

How do you know when your best is good enough and how do you move forward if it isn’t?

waiting for the muse to come

Last Modified on December 8, 2016
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30 thoughts on “The Write Words

  1. I often think I can tell when my best is good enough by the experiences I’ve amassed through the years. My best is human and my standards for everyone, including myself, were often too high so I’ve learned to let go knowing my best is good. But the second part of the question, how do I move forward even when my best isn’t good? Well, those moments still shatters me when I linger too long in them.

  2. Jessj

    Oh, how I’ve missed your writing. And maybe when it’s good (poignant, eloquent, Latin) enough to leave a void when otherwise silent is how you know.

  3. Cameron

    I had a wise and succinct pastry instructor who informed us during a lesson on cake decoration, that “there comes a time when you just have to stop f*cking with it.”

    It works for words, too.

    I find that this point gets easier to find as you continue to put things out there. Not to say that you are anywhere closer to the writing being perfect, or even truly finished. It’s just that it’s time to stop f*cking with it. Because another edit might make a mess of something beautiful in the pursuit of perfecting something that was already just fine.

    And now that I write that? It sounds insane.

  4. I tinker until I drive myself nuts. And I don’t really have an answer for how to move past it.

    In theory I understand that playing around with something too much will mess it up, but it’s more difficult to remember that when I’m in that space between writing, editing, and letting something be “finished.”

  5. My life currently feels as tho it is being constructed and deconstructed daily by words, nuances, words not said, and words that should not have been said.
    Were any of them the right words, were most misconstrued?
    Can I head back in time and take back words, or say different words, to placate, of love, of longing … of truth.

    Keep at your words, you use them well.
    They flow with beauty, and they slip from your fingers with such eloquence. One day we shall read them, bound together, a labor of love and remember how you got to that place …. love always sweet friend xxx

  6. “If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works.” JOHN DOS PASSOS

    How do we ever know we’re done? I guess we don’t. I’ve never actually been at the point where the clay hardens. No matter that a short story has been published or an essay submitted, I re-read it months later and find everything I would change.

    I think that way lies madness.

  7. Uncle Roberto

    Your Uncle Roberto, political blogger extraordinairo, knows when he has spent too much time perfecting his words…..not that that will ever stop him from continuing his calling to save the world. It begins around 2:30 a.m. after three hours of editing another earth shattering couple of powerful paragraphs that desperately need to be posted before day break on the message board of his compound’s website. And it abruptly ends when he hits the send button and realizes he was timed out two hours earlier……another masterpiece down the drain.

  8. Di

    I always read your words and try to come up with some pithy comment; however, today’s posting doesn’t warrant words from me. But these are some of my favorite words on writing by one of my favorite authors, next to you, of course!

    “People all over the world use words; the writer comes along and has to use these most-in-use objects, put together a few nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives … and pull them together and make them bounce, throw them against the wall and make people say, ‘I never thought of it that way.'” ~Maya Angelou

    And to you, my dear friend, you always make me think that “I never thought of it that way”!

  9. Superb, insightful post, Julie.

    Here’s my pattern:

    I write vigorously. Leave it alone. Read it. Read it over & over again. Read it aloud. Change words. Add better words. Add a scent. Add something surprising. DELETE. (I love deleting the most)

    After all that rigmarole, when I think it’s good enough (it’s NEVER quite good enough…I press PUBLISH…

    And NEVER ever look back.

    Xxx LOVE!

  10. Courtney

    Faith, trust, and maybe a little bit of …fairy dust. I believe in you – just remember, sometimes believing is what makes things real. xoxo

  11. I never know when I’m done. And I don’t really think I ever am. I don’t know if there’s one piece I’ve written, when reading it later I don’t think to myself, “I could have said it better.”

    I try not to look back, but I often do.

    Oh, and one more thing, can you go back to teaching English so I can take your class. I’d go back to high school again just to do that!

  12. Kir

    well it all spoke to me, because this is what is holding me back from publishing anything or giving anything I’ve finished to anyone because I’m always so afraid it won’t be good enough or that I could do it better, (that word, this paragraph, that sentence) and I ruminate. I read it over and over, I walk away, I come back but I still can’t sit with it.

    and like you, later I’ll come back when it’s much later and say, “I wrote that? I. Wrote. That.?” and I amaze myself with my own ability.

    I love when you write like this, when I feel like you’re speaking right to me. 🙂

  13. I’m happy with what I write until I get the emails back saying ” try a writing class.” Then I hate my stuff for about a week and then I get back up on that keyboard and hit submit, again.

  14. I know I’m done when….
    …. I read something I’ve written for the first time as a reader, not as the writer, and it makes me feel all the emotions I’m trying to convey.
    …. I doubt. <<– This, this is my enemy. It's always when the self-doubt creeps in, that I know I need to step away, or I'll never, ever, be done.

    (I always get a little excited when I see that you've published a post. xo)

  15. Kristi

    Whether we are baking a cake or raising a child or writing a book, I think that many women always ask themselves if it is “good enough”. Those of us plagued with that tendency would benefit from asking ourselves, good enough for who?

    I am guessing it is amazing as it is, but an over achiever will never be satisfied.

    I agree, it is so good to read your words again!

  16. I don’t. Ever. But I just keep writing.

    I’m working on my third book. Hopefully it will be out in February. I still don’t think my words are good enough. Amazon and Lulu sales tell me I need to work a lot harder.

    A musician friend of mine recently told me that although she’s written over 100 songs and won several awards she still has the same mentality she had as a teenage garage player thirty five years ago and that’s what keeps her going.

  17. I have many things to tell you.

    No. 1 I was so excited when I saw that you had written a post, and that I wouldn’t have to wait to read your words (until your book comes out, for instance).

    No. 2 That TS Eliot quote is now my favourite. I had never heard of it, but words would fail if I tried to express how much meaning I get out of it.

    No. 3 I laughed out loud. HARD. At this: “I can’t fix it, Mrs. Gardner. It’s already written.”

    No. 4 I have viewed my writing like dough – kneading and kneading until it’s homogenous and all the excess flour has been picked up. And I have viewed my writing like combing out a tangle. You work and work at it until you’ve picked through the tangle and all the strands float cleanly. So I think you could literally express your writing as clay. At least it would make sense to me.

    No. 4 I feel like we are kindred spirits. I have felt like this:

    Sometimes what I read seems written by a stranger, appearing on my screen as if by magic.

    And this:

    I came up with that? Huh.

    And this:

    Eventually the time comes when I approach a piece I’ve been picking at for many hours (days, months, years) and the sentences have hardened. They feel like old clay that cannot be shaped anymore. Not without cracking the pot.

    No. 5 I’m in the final days of letting go of my manuscript, even though the words are not all quite right. It’s hard, but eventually I have to let it go.

    No. 6 I love you. Come to France! 🙂

  18. “Did I accidentally use Latin?” Heh.

    I so often feel like my words don’t do my experiences or thoughts or quandaries justice. The “meant” to say gets all mixed together with they “trying” to say.

    I never know when I am done. Just ask anyone who knows me.

  19. So hard, Julie. When I get to that point–about writing, parenting, an issue in a friendship–I get third party advice. So . . . an editor, etc. Or maybe even a non-writer type friend who just loves to read would be a good pair of eyes. I think we writers forget that there are regular readers out there (somewhere?) who are not also writers. Just a thought!

  20. Did my comment not work?

  21. I don’t know if we ever really know we’re done. Some of us anyway. I can think I’m done and read something a week, a month later and want to edit and change and tinker with how the words read. I have no answer but appreciate your post. I felt myself nodding my head several times 🙂

  22. That quote and this post resonated with me on several levels…in my writing and my current health struggles. I just finished up NaNoWriMo and I have to confess, it was not a good time for me. I wrote my 52000 plus word novel in 30 days, yes, but I am not proud of it and it may never be offered for public consumption and scrutiny. And why? Because I just didn’t “feel” it. I read those words now and they are so one-dimensional and lifeless. Kind of like I am feeling these days. However, I did learn something. I learned to step back and say no. I learned that my writing will not always satisfy me. That’s a tough lesson for someone who writes for several reasons to include self-indulgence, escapism and loneliness. I write fiction and delight in the process of making my characters come alive. Right now, I need to work on reviving myself, because only then will my words dance for me and make me proud to share. Thanks for your post and your insight. You are an inspiration to me.

  23. I think my struggle is that when I struggle to get things out I often look at what I’ve written and am just like, welp, guess I’m not good enough to write this, moving on!

  24. I’ve probably talked about this before. My husband is a recording engineer and is fond of saying that he never really finishes anything, he just abandons them (aka runs out of time and ideas and must send it to the client). Months later he will go back to listen and he’ll find some small tweak he wants to make or he’ll hear it on a different sound system and that will inspire something else…

    I find it’s that way with my writing, too. I’m not sure I am ever finished or if the words are good enough. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready enough for that moment. I’ll just have to let them go and see what happens.

    I like the way you describe it–the hardened clay. Put the words on display and see how they hold up to the weather. 🙂

  25. Oh I understand this to the very core of my being. I so often write and have no clue if what I have written with speak to anyone else or if it will even say what I think it says. Sometimes I hit publish, sometimes I hit delete and sometimes I just let it sit there never to be edited again.

    The funny thing is that I have a feeling if I picked up any of those words that you haven’t been able to shape into something I would think they were perfectly complete.

  26. I meant to respond to this days ago. And then life. You know?

    I don’t know if we’re ever truly satisfied with what we’ve done. Maybe that’s what pushes us to keep writing. When I did my last huge round of edits…not the cleaning-up-a-few-things-at-the-end edits, but the oh-my-god-my-ms-is-bleeding-edits I was paralyzed and then I saw it with different eyes. I was ready. I had a significant break between round 1 and 2, so it was the right time to tackle it. By the time I sent it off I felt good. Confident that it was better than before. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I knew I had done my best. Now I look at the book and I think…oh maybe I could have done this part differently, but I am still happy with it. At the same time I know I’ll never “arrive” when it comes to writing. I will always doubt and I will always persevere. Because, as you know, when that sentence, that thread, the story comes together, it’s magic.

  27. My inability to move forward hits me at different times – I am ALWAYS looking for the best/perfect/right thing. So I stand in an aisle and debate faucets or pants and decide WHICH ONE is best/perfect/right or sit at my computer and wander through pages wondering when this will be ready to be shared, when it is done.

    In my moments of clarity, I realize it doesn’t matter. There’s always the next best. This is good enough for now. And a lot of times, it ends up being perfect. Those times it doesn’t? I start again.


  28. I love that I can relate so much to this, and I love that I can relate so much to the comments as well. I could tinker with my writing all day long. And like Kir, I somehow convince myself that nothing I write would be interesting to anyone, much less for publication or by all means PAYMENT. Why do we do this to ourselves?

  29. This is exactly how I feel and react to my own writing. Wow. I sort of thought I was alone in the way I obsessed over each of my own words/sentences/paragraphs.

  30. Duffy just finished the first draft of her first novel . . . I am so unbelievably proud of her – though I believe she’s now in an area where the “real work” begins.

    I don’t know how to tell you if it’s enough, Julie — I can only tell you that I want to read whatever you’re writing.

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