I had worked on the book for at least a year, working on it every day, sometimes for hours, sometimes just for minutes, but always and always. There was the research. The thinking about it. The writing. The endless revisions, the notes, the talks with my editor that brought on new revisions, ongoing changes, cuts, expansions, the whole gamut of good writing practices. Then there was the copyediting, and the page proofs, all of which brought on more thought, and more changes. All these were actions which in no way were unusual. It was the process by which I wrote every one of my books until it was done.
And when it was done, I moved on to the next project and began the whole process once again.
But then came the day when a package arrived. It was from my editor and consisted of that book itself, printed, bound, and jacketed in its bright new cover.
How fine! How exciting! (It always is.)
Then I opened the book and read the first paragraph. No sooner did I do that than I realized I had left out a sentence, a sentence not required, not ever written, but a sentence which would have made a great difference to the book.
But it was too late. The book was in my hands, a published book.
Was this a unique experience?
Not at all.
In all my years of writing and publishing whenever I have looked at a “finished book” I have always, always, always, found something that could have made the book better. It is not necessarily a significant thing — usually, it is rather small — but it is something that would have enhanced the text.
This is not because I rushed things, or hastened to meet a deadline, or was sloppy, but because it is the nature of art, any art, never, ever to be truly done.
Sometimes — in my experience — the realization comes just after I submit a manuscript to my editor. “No, no, wait,” I hasten to inform the editor. “Don’t read that, read this version.” It drives my editors crazy.
Writing — as with any art — is always frustrating. Even when praise is heaped upon the artist — and that does happen — the artist knows it could have been better. To create good art is also to be humbled.
One is haunted: “It could have been better.”
Consider Leonardo De Vinci, surely one of the very best artists. Yet it is to him that is attributed the phrase: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”