by Nan Lundeen
Inspiration or perspiration? Perfection or wild and free?
Thomas Edison’s quote that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration is good news for those of us who slog away day after day hoping to unearth gems of inspiration. I’d venture to guess that most poetry and prose writers know that if you want to be a writer you can’t wait for lightning to strike. No, you have to sit down and actually write.
We also know that once we’ve ridden the waves of creative juices and produced a manuscript, even more perspiration is required to edit, rewrite, and polish. But how much to edit, rewrite, and polish? When is it done? I’ve heard writers say when their books were published, they felt relieved because they could stop rewriting.
The other day, my husband I and went to a flower show. There we saw the most perfect white rose in the entire universe! No, really! It was a Mozart symphony all by itself, every petal harmonious with the others. Homogenous perfection, it stood in a glass vase bedecked by a blue ribbon.
Later that day as I remembered the perfect white rose, a wild rose memory washed over me, a childhood memory of pink wild roses tumbling down the shoulders of Iowa gravel roads, perfect in their disarray. A few details, a metaphor, and a simile gave me a poem. Then the pruning began. But not a whole lot. As much as the perfect rose stirs my heart, the wild roses stir my soul. I can breathe near them; the perfect rose makes me nearly hold my breath.
How much do you strive for perfection as you write? As you edit, rewrite, and polish?
At a writing workshop I heard this advice: there’s a time to expand your work and a time to tighten. Sort of like a bellows. Can you visualize them—those contraptions with handles that breathe air onto a fire? Sometimes writing may need a breath of air. Even during editing, rewriting, and polishing, it isn’t always good to tighten, tighten, tighten. A manuscript might need more elucidation, more flights of fancy.
Robert Frost describes beautifully his Faraway Meadow’s anticipated return to wildness after it has been mowed for the last time ever in his poem “The Last Mowing.” He opens the poem by telling us “the talk at the farmhouse” is that “the meadow is finished with men.” He continues to say, “Then now is the chance for the flowers/That can’t stand mowers and plowers.”
The meadow is done with the tame. The place of the moment is ours For you, O tumultuous flowers, To go to waste and go wild in, All shapes and colors of flowers, I needn’t call you by name.
What do you prefer—perfection or wild and free? There is a time, I think, to let our words tumble wantonly down the shoulders of roadsides.
The author is grateful to the South Carolina Writers Workshop for first publishing this column in the Quill October 2012.