Imagine, if you will, the author in her very early twenties.
She’s two months out from her college graduation, completing her second or third week as a real journalist at a real newspaper. She’s wearing a suit that’s far too fancy for the newsroom around her, but that’s just because she only owns the one right now. She’s so new she hasn’t been out shopping for business casual clothes yet. Imagine that person, bent over her desktop, tap-tapping away at her fourth or fifth article.
She wants it to be perfect, see. She knows the editor took a big chance hiring a kid out of college and she doesn’t want to let anyone down—the editor, her family, and most of all, herself, so she tells herself the article has to be perfect. There are plenty of other people who would snap up her job in an instant, she thinks, if the article isn’t perfect. So when the editor comes to the door and leans on the jamb, waiting for her to respond—
—she pauses. Looks up.
Goes absolutely cold.
“You’re past deadline,” the editor says.
Gulp. The young journalist’s world closes in. This is it, she thinks. He’s regretting the hire. He’s going to HR to see about having me removed. Is there such a thing as an annulment for first jobs? I’m so gone—
The editor grins, like he knows what she’s thinking. “Let me tell you something my first editor told me,” he says, looking far too at ease with himself to be heading to HR straight afterwards (well—to be honest, you never know with editors). “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
“Never finished, only abandoned,” the young journalist echoes.
“Put a kicker on it, and send me the article,” he says, walking back to his office.
Put a kicker on it, she thinks, looking back at the unfinished article.
It’s not perfect. But she sends it in anyway.
The editor reads it, marks it up, changes some things and sends it to the printer.
And the young journalist does that nearly nine hundred more times before leaving the paper many years later. She’ll end up writing those words on a post-it that sticks to her monitor for years. (To be honest, she should have it stuck to her monitor right now because it’s just such darned good advice, but she hasn’t had a desktop monitor since 2014.)
Okay, it’s time to stop talking in the third person.
Let’s be honest. We all want to write the next viral feature, the next bright Atlantic-type expose, the piece that will land on a billion Facebook feeds. We want craft to come first. We want our work to be perfect.
But it’s not.
And it will never be.
And that’s what’s beautiful about the whole process.
At some point, to be a working writer, you have to trust yourself and pull the trigger on abandonment. You have to learn to cultivate enough of a friendliness to deadlines so that you can say: “It’s done, or as done as it will ever be,” and toss the story to the editor, even if it isn’t perfect. I know it’s slightly different in noveling—but, in journalism, where deadline is queen and king and alien god-emperor—it’s sometimes more important for the reader to have the information in a clear, concise, and honest way than anything else. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be.
The second corollary is that, to be a working writer, you have to be comfortable with deadlines, whether daily, weekly, or yearly. If you’re a journalist turning out articles for the next day’s paper, your deadline isn’t the only one that has to be respected. The copyeditor that sees your article after you has a family at home—as does the pressman operating his loud, clacking machine downstairs. Same thing for novels—you might be done, but your cover artist isn’t and your production editor hasn’t even begun. Each and every one of these people are relying on you to meet your deadlines in order for them to meet theirs and for your product to greet readers on time.
So at some point, as that Disney earworm says, you have to let it go.
(I know. I know. I’m sorry.)
Embrace abandonment. Love your deadline. Do your best, look at your piece of art, pat it on the head, and send it out into the world. It won’t be perfect and it won’t be “done,” but that’s okay. I wasn’t quite “done” either at age 21, and I’m still far away from the finish line.
Someone’s going to need your art. Make sure they get it!