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When I was little, maybe eight years old, I distinctly remember inventing a sentence that riveted me. It was a piece of dialogue that I imagined to be spoken from a man on horseback to a man on foot. It was in the aftermath of a war. The grass beneath the horse’s hooves was muddy and slick. There were bloody swords scattered across the field. Both the men wore capes.

I had no idea what war this would be, in what century, even. I didn’t know the characters, their relationship to each other, their families, the plot beyond this particular exchange of words. But my sentence, it was so exquisite! If it took writing an entire novel in order to find a place for it, then the effort would surely be worth it. For an hour or two, I dug in and wrote. Then, dejectedly, I stopped. I had nothing to go on. It was useless. I settled comfortably back down with my sentence and read it over and over, in love, repentant at having failed to find it a proper home.

To some degree, this is the way I wrote for the first twenty-eight years of my life. I did finish stories and poems, and I published some, and I even wrote a novel in college, although I never revised it as much as I’d have liked. But there remained for me an intoxicating interest in the precision of words. If I wrote a spectacular sentence, it made up for an hour of distraction. Some days, instead of writing, I reread old stories, delighting at my perceived genius, bathing in how eloquent I occasionally managed to be. When the spark of a new idea struck, I longed for tunnel vision: to be able to sit down and pound it out until I actually reached the ending. But this rarely worked. The anticipated weight of so many endless drafts, of so much second-guessing, was frequently enough to keep me from moving past the second or third page.

Then I had a baby, and everything changed. Including this: beginnings don’t count anymore. First drafts don’t count. Jotted ideas don’t count. Any inspiration that has touched the page but hasn’t found its way to an ending doesn’t count, because the list of these projects is so long that the chance of returning to any of them is barely above 0%. If I don’t finish a project, it’s the same as never having started one.

So I hold new ideas protectively inside my head now, letting the itchiness in my fingers build up and up until I have two hours to spill it all out on the page. That’s the start. The next day I sit down again, and that’s the finish. On the third day, I’m editing. Those three acts--starting, finishing, and editing--are the only three options on the table; I’ve eliminated “working on” from my vocabulary. Working on doesn’t imply a deadline, and if there’s no deadline, something else with a deadline--exhaustion, mealtime, errands, illness, work--will inevitably come first.

It sounds rigid, maybe, uncreative. The amazing thing is that I feel a lot freer now. When I devised that single line of wartime dialogue, now lost to the years, what struck me so deeply was a sense of perfection: this sentence, it could not be any better. It’s perfect. And so there was no novel that could house it, because there are no perfect novels. Expanding a thing inevitably makes it messier. And yet expanding a thing--a story, a family--is what yields life. It’s what creates the world we live in.

I try my best--imperfectly, of course--not to write toward perfection anymore. Some stories come closer than others. Some stories are messy and fraught and the day feels wasted. But then tomorrow comes. I begin again, with the luxurious sense of freedom that comes with knowing that I'll also stop, set aside, be done, make room for more to come.

Photo by Jeannie Harris on Unsplash

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