Over at Everyday Genius hot tamale Michael Seidlinger has been flashing us with some works-in-progress by a variety of writers, which made me think about the genre “Works-In-Progress” in general, its authors and its architectures.
There’s an undeniable logic to reading a finished work. Your eyes flow from left to right, the first sentence leads to the next. You turn the page and advance to Chapter Two. Everything might as well be written in stone, blood, or black tattoo ink. But with works-in-progress there’s no such guarantee of comfort or coherency. Look at that word there—what comes after it could be altered at any second and what comes before it should probably be deleted. This is to say, when reading works-in-progress we’re basking in chaos. Our tattoos here are the temporary sort.
Now chaos is a thrilling place to be. From a writer’s perspective works-in-progress are bundles of failure and opportunity. There’s always something else to revise, more backstory that ought to be excised. We’re used to looking at our own manuscripts and knowing no sentence is sacrosanct. Often I imagine myself to be the Red Queen shrieking Off with their heads! when I look once again at my little word creations. From a reader’s perspective works-in-progress are odd, intriguing peaks at a respectable weirdo in their underwear.
The history of fiction would not be complete without a nod to works-in-progress, to books writers died before completing and which are made better because of it. Bouvard and Pecuchet, The Man Without Qualities, The Pale King—these novels take on mythic qualities; they signal not only what the novel is but what it could be. Yet works-in-progress aren’t only things to mull over or mourn with. You can also wander about them. You can even glance at their half-formed genitals.
Carve That Bunk Away
Once you pass through the metal detectors in the Galleria dell’Accademia but before you join the crowd of fanny-packed tourists gawking at David, take a moment to mingle with The Prisoners. These are Michelangelo’s unfinished masterpieces, four handsome statues still trapped in stone. Their bodies curve through the marble. Their arms and legs recall—and it’s a rather lowbrow American thought, but what can one do?—Han Solo trapped in carbonite. Only instead of being unfrozen, to be freed these men need the surrounding substance to be carved away bit by tiny bit.
This is a metaphor for one sort of work-in-progress, the kind that must be continually sculpted, shorn of anything antithetical to the artist’s singular vision. Eject the excesses and distractions. Slice off the fat and barnacles. In this version, the work-in-progress must be liberated through the negative space of creation. The finished product is the beautiful peon trapped inside this immense stone shell.
Endless Renovations to Escape the Vengeful Spirits
Or you could be waiting in line at the Winchester Mystery House.
At some point, you just have to quit. For Sarah Winchester, this point was named death. For more than thirty years, she had a belt of carpenters working round the clock to rebuild, demolish, and renovate her house in California. Seven stories, forty-seven fireplaces, three elevators, windows with thirteen panes of glass, doors that open to nowhere, and stairs that might take you on a metaphysical journey but do not get you to the next level of what’s one of the strangest tourist traps in America. Rumor has it Sarah kept this up until her death because she wanted to dodge the vengeful spirits haunting her. You know we’ve all been there.
We encounter another metaphor. Some work-in-progress can never be officially finished. There’s always something else; another detail, another chapter, more ghosts to escape. But at some point, you’ve got to call it quits and send that manuscript off. No more “just one more!” little last things. Enough chimneys. Send your mansion out!
Keep At It For Like 145 Years
Then again, sometimes the distance between “start” and “finished” is a couple of lifetimes. One of Antoni Gaudí’s wildest dreams, the Sagrada Família has been under construction since 1882. Gaudí’s architectural vision is stunning, freakish, and fabulous. I can think of no other building where me, Princess Peach, and the pope could all happily reside. Roommates! Of course, it’s not quite done. There have been setbacks, fires, wars, and a significant lack of funds. But one day, one day.
The Sagrada Família serves as our final metaphor: The work-in-progress that is more dream than actuality, the kind of novel that’s written in your mind’s eye but not on paper, the type of story that exists forever in the future, reminding us of the unfathomable divide between art imagined and art realized.
So friends, let’s celebrate the work-in-progress as a genre unto itself.
And if some of our artistic aims are never completed, that’s fine.
After all, our greatest, strangest works-in-progress are our lives and they shall forever remain unfinished.