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 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.
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.”
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.
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?
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