Cook until Done

I’m writing a cookbook and in it I never use that mysterious phrase—Cook Until Done. Those three words always baffled me. What does done mean, anyway? Is it when the brownies no longer jiggle in the middle or when the edges look dry or is it done when the smoke alarm goes off? Over the years, though, I decided that, Done is a range from slightly under-baked to slightly over-baked. My brownies will never be perfect; will never look like they belong on the pages of Bon Appetite. (Spoiler Alert: Magazines use Photoshop.) Sometimes my brownies come out a little too hard on the edges or a little too soft in the middle, but they are still really good and enjoyed by all.

This question of doneness got me thinking. As writers, how do we know when our book is done? A book has no pop-up timer; you can’t stick a fork in it or insert a toothpick to see if it comes out clean. So how do we Write Until Done?

Many writers have a hard time knowing when they’re finished. To them, it’s finished when it’s perfect. And I mean . . . Perfect. They tweek and futz for years, never sending their creation out into the world. Even successful writers don’t know when their book is done. One said, “It’s done when my agents rips it out of my clutched fingers.”

Part of the problem is perception. As little baby writers we start out writing garbage and think it’s good, then we get better and start writing good stuff and think it’s garbage. The better we become, the more we strive for perfection, and as Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” You can polish your book until your chapters shine like the Pieta, but you’ll never finish because it still won’t be perfect. What your unfinished work will be is a drag on your psyche. As Bruce Holland Rogers says in Ten Tips for Psychological Survival in Writing, “Take finished over polished. It’s better to have your story done, imperfect and in the mail than to have a highly polished and fragmentary manuscript in a file drawer.”

Except for a few egotists with a God complex, if writers only submitted their books when they were perfect, library shelves would be very empty and agents would have to find a different line of work. Striving for perfection is the reason so many writers are their own worst enemy. As they sit at their desks flailing themselves, agonizing over what color to call a rock, I want to yell at them, “It’s brown. It doesn’t need to be perfect—it needs to be done.”

“The beautiful thing about writing,” Robert Cormer said, “is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.” But after twelve or thirteen drafts, it’s probably not going to get any better. And that’s okay. Really. If you don’t believe me, just ask a reader how she liked the last book she read and you’ll probably hear, “It was a really good book.” And really good, though not perfect, is good enough.