There's a very good running joke in my life, and it goes by the name "final draft". Countless times I have wrongfully accused one of my projects of this verdict only to find later on that what I thought was final was really just a warm-up lap. Or that final just meant final-ish.
How do you know when a book is done? When it came to painting, Picasso said he knew that a painting of his was done "when the gentleman from the gallery comes to hang it." Dermot Bolger, an Irish writer with a slew of wonderful novels, poems, and plays under his belt, has in turn said he knows a play is done "when the gentlemen and ladies of the press come to hang the playwright." But what about novels?
Unless your measure of success involves joining forces with a bar code -- and more power to you if it does -- the finish line can be much fuzzier. Characters you've lived with for years can be hard to let go, and so you may find yourself having imaginary conversations with them or still thinking up clever plot twists. Or, in an extreme example, you might find yourself -- this is all hypothetical, of course -- typing sections of your floundering first novel into Babel Fish, translating a paragraph into Italian, then from Italian into French, then French back into English. Maybe it was a distancing device designed to suck some of the pain out of my pet project's slow demise. But then maybe it brought me back to one of the pleasures that drew me to writing in the first place: the simple, sometimes useless joy of putting certain words next to certain other words.
(If you have even a sliver of doubt that odd pairings of words can be both silly and sublime, you need look no further than Stephen Fry. In an episode of A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Fry willfully unleashes on us the following sentence: "Hold the newsreader's nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers." And if you think that's not astonishing and beautiful, you should probably stop reading this post now, for I am about to lead you down the road to utter codswallop.)
My novel-in-the-drawer -- that first heroic stab at writing a novel, started over ten years ago in earnest and abandoned five years later in dejection -- was great for this exercise. In fact, I liked some of the warped, over-translated phrases from my book so much that over time I grew convinced they were better than the original. "Please please it's very emergency" conveyed an urgency the original draft didn't have.
Imagine if, instead of beginning A Tale of Two Cities with the famous lines "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Charles Dickens had written this: "Era improves of the periods, was he most imperfect of periods"? Ah, fair enough. It would've been complete gibberish. Still, if anyone else is feeling adventurous and wants to take the first line or favorite passage of a story and give it the Babel Fish treatment, let me know what you come up with. Or if you've any stories of your own about things you've done out of boredom or sheer desperation in trying to get over a book, project, or holiday, share away. Suddenly an Edvard Munch "Scream" punching bag may not sound like such a bad idea.