I was reminded again of how impressed I am by carpenters as I watched two young men install my new kitchen cabinets. What agonizing precision. I listened to them going back and forth about 1/16 of an inch and thought, “How? How can you possibly get it right? Sneeze and the whole thing is wonky.” The lead carpenter was a very meticulous fellow. I could tell it as soon as he shook my hand. He was the kind of man who would never rest until everything was lined up exactly and without a centimeter’s discrepancy. He said to me at one point about my refrigerator, “Everything will be fine. You’ve got easily 1/8 of an inch to spare.” To him, 1/8 of an inch was a gap wide enough to fall through.
But I worried for this young man. Watching him, I wondered if he believed nothing would work out if it were 1/8 of an inch off. I’ve certainly been through that in my writing, especially toward the end of a project. Here, I’m getting down to the tiny details; here, I’m toiling over a ten-word sentence in the middle of a 100,000-word novel. As I work and work that sentence, I begin believing that if it doesn’t come out right, the whole book is shot.
In carpentry, this is somewhat the case. If one cabinet is 1/16 of an inch off, all the cabinets are 1/16 of an inch off, and eventually you may have more cabinet than kitchen. Obviously, this is not so in a novel. But let us not demonize this eagle-eyed carpenter/writer for his narrow demand on one sentence. Within that absurd focus is a desire for accuracy. The belief that the entire novel hangs in the balance is a mirage, the product of fear and fatigue at the end of a long journey. But often the stuff we can’t seem to get right is a sign of where we’re headed.
Often, what is so confounding is not that our skill and desire has abandoned us, but that somewhere in our artist’s psyche a new desire has hatched, the route to which we have yet to discover. And so, what would have sufficed yesterday seems cheap and dull today. Rejoice! You have lifted your head to view the horizon and determined that where you are will no longer do. What other pleasure is there for an explorer like you than to know there are more paths to forge?