As I develop one of my many spreadsheets when editing “The College Station All-Male Feminist Union,” I fight with the niggling worry that I’m putting in too many edits after I published a completed version on my blog. Was I lying beforehand, in a sense? Did I knowingly give you all an “inferior” edition of my story? I’m here to say no, I did not… and even if I did believe so, it wouldn’t matter.
I often pick apart my own old stories until I’m left with a patchwork monster of half-realized character arcs and conflicting ideas. Trust me, it is possible to revise something badly. It’s not just that writers are their own worst critics… often, they’re their only critics, until someone else reads their work. Without an ideal reader, or input of any kind, writers end up climbing a mountain blindfolded each time they go to work.
When they’re not editing their fiction, writers are living their own lives… and changing. As Plato once said, “Books are immortal sons defying their sires.” That’s a great description of whatever story of yours you read at least a year after you made it. Most perfectionists can credit themselves with a few things they did right— a writer, if she makes such a list of great accomplishments, wipes it clean after six months. Look at anything “political” you made five years ago; I defy you to deny this.
For a lot of writers, their ideal version of their work only exists in their head. That Platonic edition of “My Great American Novel” likely shifts when they’re constructing it while waiting in a queue or whatever. Which is part of my point. You get to decide what the “definitive” version of your story is… and where the cut-off point remains when you decide to stop picking at it. Until you create something as good as Star Wars, don’t fret about “becoming another George Lucas,” always meddling with your creation until you lose track of your own goal. Who’s better at deciding when a story’s done, other than the creator? It’s totally possible for two different versions of a story to exist. In fact, it’s fun to compare each version to see where they succeed and fail! Even if, for example, Jean Rhys ended up changing the ending of Voyage in the Dark, it’s up to her to decide which ending is the “real” one… a decision that won’t matter anyways, since the readers get to decide which ending is “better.” Such open-endedness doesn’t diminish Voyage in the Dark’s value by any stretch of the writer’s chaotic, fluctuating imagination.
Which is why I say to you now: submit those “imperfect” works of yours. Go ahead and show someone the fruits of your many hours of labor, even if the result’s not as sweet as you would life. More important than putting your best foot forward, you should keep putting one foot in front of the other, always growing as an artist and as a human being.
I will send a different version of “The College Station All-Male Feminist Union” to short story magazines. When I finish editing, the new draft might not even have much in common with the blog edition. That’s ok, though! I like both iterations of the story. I’m changing things because I changed my writing philosophies and social outlooks… that makes my old self different, not “inferior.” I enjoy old and new versions of my work (at least in this case), and you will too.