Paige's Pages: Revisions, revisions

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland Buy this photo

By Paige Pearcy, Deputy Magazine Editor
Published February 19, 2013

Having admittedly failed at reading the one book I promised myself I would read for the first of these columns — Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” — I was determined to read it for this one. I’m thankful that I tackled it, though tackle is a strong word because it was hardly unwieldy or difficult. It was more of a pleasurable hug.

I chose to read Smith’s first novel for two reasons: One, because I admire the essays and literary journalism that I’ve already read by her and two, because I was told that she always revises her work, even during public readings. And considering I re-wrote this column five times and have been editing it for two weeks, that sounded all too familiar.

How does she know when something is good enough to publish it? When does she make that distinction? And when can we accept we’ve done something well enough to say it is “well enough?” When do we give up on the pursuit of perfection to settle for something we deem acceptable? Perhaps Smith found it in “White Teeth” when she wrote my favorite line from the book: “Pulchritude — beauty where you would least suspect it, hidden in a word that looked like it should signify a belch or a skin infection.”

Perhaps I found it when I was accepted to attend to this fine institution, or when I was in fourth grade and won an essay contest about conserving electricity (with the impressive monetary prize of $1.) Maybe that’s when I decided I did something well enough. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have been completely on board to go back and make revisions. There is always room for revisions, something that is humbling and scary but also strangely calming; we can always scratch out words to make a sentence be more visceral, just like we can always turn back around and talk to that crush and say what we actually mean. We can always change something we don’t like. Having that ability to never settle but still determine when something is “good enough for the time being” keeps us going.

Yet, when I read Smith’s book, I couldn’t find any areas where it needed revising — not that I have an authority to say. It was exceptional. The words are so perfectly selected that sentences like this: “But surely to tell these tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect,” come up and you just have to stop for a minute and breathe because, yes, this book is something great. And that’s where Smith excels. She can hide the flaws. Hide the areas that she would revise. That’s a skill harder to do than one may expect. How do you say something is your best when you know it’s not? It’s the decision you have to make at that moment when you run out of time and you have to do something. Even if it’s not quite what you want, you still have to go with it. You have to meld the good and the bad so well that the average onlooker can’t distinguish a difference — or else you’re screwed. You’ll constantly be faced with disappointment and dissatisfaction that is impossible to fix. That act of being so good (but not perfect) at covering up your imperfections, and accepting where you wish you could revise but you just can’t, yields contentment. Smith had to decide she was content enough with the published “White Teeth.” And so is the reader.

Likewise in “White Teeth,” the characters are seeking contentment. Clara wants a ‘normal’ family, but how can she get that when she marries a 40-year-old man when she’s 17? And he wants a normal life but is plagued with memories of war. Samad works to find true love, but grapples with it because it requires him to go against his religion. So instead the characters hide. Sound familiar? They keep on searching for the life they want, oh yes, but they also keep living their same lives. They keep their eyes open for the moment when it’s acceptable to change, to revise, but until then they cover up.

But it’s never to late to make that correction. Revisions, revisions.