Finishing the Book, Finally

Studio 360

It's a familiar scene: the writer sitting at the typewriter, unsure of how to begin --- but what about knowing when to stop?

Sometimes getting to the end is the hardest part. William Styron, who wrote novels such as "The Confessions of Nat Turner"and "Sophie's Choice,"didn't publish any work for the last 25 years of his life. His daughter Alexandra Styron wrote a memoir about him.

"I didn't realize how hard he had tried to pull out of his soul another great novel. That was his life's work," she says. "And that's what he couldn't make happen for the last 25 years of his life."

She visited her father's archive of work at Duke University and discovered several unfinished novels. "He was failing to write in a way that was epic and tragic and devastating."

Even playwright Tony Kushner has struggled to declare a play complete. He rewrote "Homebody/Kabul"at least 17 times after it opened in 2005. "I could tell in the beginning that I was launching into something that I couldn't really see the end of," Kushner says.

Sometimes fear and procrastination gets the best of us. But what if some kinds of procrastination could actually help you accomplish creative work? That's the hypothesis of Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the bestseller "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World."

In his recent New York Times article "Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate,"Grant argues that procrastination can allow us time to come up with more creative ideas. "Your first ideas are usually the most conventional. That's why they came first. They were easy to think of," Grant says.

And then there's Joyce Carol Oates. She doesn't start writing anything until it's ready to be written. "I do a lot of thinking. And until I have the whole thing in my head like a movie, I don't really begin," Oates says.

So how can we know when something is done?

"I'm a fan of the French playwright Molire, who wrote that your work is done, not when you have nothing to add, but when you have nothing left to take away," Grant says. "And I feel like I'm close to done when I've removed everything I can and there's nothing I'm willing to let go of."