A message from Tina Fey
Tina Fey’s charming article in this week’s New Yorker—in which she shares some of the lessons that she learned from nine years of working on Saturday Night Live—is essential reading for fans of our most unlikely celebrity writer, and especially for those trying to write for themselves. Her advice ranges from the aphoristic (“Producing is about discouraging creativity”) to the cheekily practical (“Never cut to a closed door”), but the big one, the one that every writer needs to bear in mind, is this:
The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s eleven-thirty. This is something that Lorne [Michaels] has said often about Saturday Night Live, and it’s a great lesson in not being too precious about your writing. You have to try your hardest to be at the top your game and improve every joke until the last possible second, but then you have to let it go.
At first, Fey’s point might seem more relevant for writers on a weekly sketch comedy show than, say, for novelists, whose writing process is both private and infinitely expandable. If anything, though, the advice is even more important for those of us working alone, without a fixed deadline, who might otherwise be inclined to polish our work until it’s perfect, luminous, and dead. This impulse has crippled great writers from Virgil (who asked on his deathbed for the unfinished Aeneid to be burned) to Ralph Ellison (who worked on his second novel for forty years and never came close to finishing it), as well as countless lesser writers who remained unpublished, and therefore unknown.
The fact is that a novel—or any work of art—isn’t complete until other people have the chance to see it. A flawed story that strangers can read from beginning to end is infinitely superior to three perfect chapters from an unfinished novel. And there are times when productivity is a much greater virtue than perfection. Every writer, whether novelist or playwright or sketch comedian, needs to be capable, when necessary, of cranking it out. Even you intend to go back and polish what you’ve done, there are days, especially at the beginning of a project, when a novelist needs to be something of a hack. And that’s the way it should be. (One suspects that the backers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark wish that Julie Taymor had displayed a little more of the hack and less of the artist.)
Which is why deadlines are so important. As Fey points out, writers in live television have deadlines whether they like it or not, but novelists—under contract or otherwise—need to establish deadlines as well. They can be as large as the deadline for completing the entire novel, and as small as the completion of a single chapter or paragraph. But once the deadline has been reached, you’ve got to move on. At the moment, I’m writing a chapter a day, and the results are far from perfect—but, as Fey notes, “perfect is overrated. Perfect is boring on live television.” And, sooner or later, every novel needs to go live.