06 May 2024

Measure once, cut, correct and amend forever.

There’s this great scene in the old Star Trek TV show where McCoy treats a silicone-based life form by whipping up some kind of cementitious slurry, which he uses to heal the creature’s wound.  When it works, McCoy, as surprised as anyone, says, “Sometimes I feel like I could fix a rainy day.”

I’ve used that line myself on the rare occasion I succeed with some forlornly impossible repair.  It’s a boast that haunts me, since I feel it brings on later failure.  You could call that superstitious and you’d be right. 

Being a retired person, much of what I do is building, maintenance and repair.  We own two properties aged thirty and sixty-five years respectively.  Would you be surprised that things at both places constantly go bad?   This means I always have something to do, and visit the hardware stores in each town at least once a day.  When they see me coming, I imagine thought bubbles that say, “What is it this time?”

I did some simple math recently and realized I’ve been doing this sort of thing for about forty-five years.  I’ve been trying to develop, maintain and repair my writing for somewhat longer than that, so by now, the two activities have blended into one.

The rules of both apply.  You want to make the first draft as close to the finished product as possible.  Although often, getting close enough is okay, expecting to go back at it with fresh eyes and brain after its had a chance to season a bit.  Though you don’t want to leave too crude a product, needing far more rehabilitation than warranted by a casual start. 

More than once, the next day I toss the whole thing out.  William Styron once told me (I know I’m name dropping, but we did spend a long evening telling stories and consuming copious amounts of Scotch) that sometimes the prose he’d left the day before “looked like crippled little children.”  An improvement on the notion that writers need to occasionally kill their babies.  The important thing to know is that time does alter perceptions, and the slightly misfit joint of the day before can look like the Grand Canyon in the early morning light. 

I have machine tools representing every decade of the last hundred years, beginning with a grinding wheel and wire brush assembly driven by an electric motor that’s likely much older than that.  Hundreds of hand tools and thousands of fasteners, screws, nails, nuts and bolts, and electrical and plumbing do-dads, enough hardware to choke a True Value and scrap lumber adequate for the construction of a modest starter home.  For the writing, all I have is years of trial and error, the opinions of finicky editors and the inspiration of other writers.  But all are tools of the trade.  I would love to have back the healthy years spent accumulating all this, but there is some compensation in the possession.  

Nothing is ever really finished.  Every time you look at the new cabinet or architectural detail, you see a flaw.  There’s a reason why in advertising we had a deadline called “pencils down”, because the copywriters would fiddle forever.  I do the same with fiction.  I have to stop reading soon before the story or book is submitted, because I know I would be tweaking for all eternity.  It’s why I rarely read anything of mine in print.  I can’t help reaching for a pen, and that is the definition of wasted effort. 

At least with construction and repair, time heals most deficiencies  You stop zeroing in on the little stuff and start seeing the whole.  You can even get a little satisfaction, even if it comes many years later.  Though this moment is usually blighted by the current projects at hand – a kindergarten classful of querulous and demanding children, flaunting their failings and imperfections. 




  1. Oh, Chris, I have been there - I am there, right now, working on a story that for some reason (as with all my stories), I have read whatever I wrote yesterday, correct and amend it, and then move on to the next slough of semi-despond. Once in a blue moon, a story pops out, everything just right, but, that's a miraculous birth, and let's not jinx it by talking about it.

  2. Thank God I like rewriting. I find it much more enjoyable than fresh writing. Not so revising a recalcitrant piece of woodworking. Better to go together perfectly the first time. Less sawdust and painful fiddling.


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