Too bad you can't just stick a fork in and know... know that your book, story, essay, poem, is done. I once read that when Jackson Pollock was asked, "How do you know when you're finished with a painting?" he replied, "How do you know when you're finished making love?"
Well... I wish it was that easy, Jackson.
Hmm, but maybe he is on to something....
I just finished my story collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, for the third time. First time around, it was a rather skimpy ten stories long, but I decided it contained everything I could give it. No sooner had I sent it out to several contests than I begin to hear whispers.... A couple of characters in the book wanted me to know that their tales weren't fully told yet, plus a couple of fragments crawled up out of my notes and made strong claims for a position in the book. Meanwhile, I had started on a novel that had been brewing in my brain for years. But the characters from Indivisibility wouldn't leave me alone. So while I waited (and waited and waited) for replies from publishers, I put the novel away and worked on two new stories.
No letter of acceptance arrived, so I added the new pieces to the manuscript, sure this time that a twelve-story collection was just right. Sending it out again, to publishers as well as to two author friends from whom I begged cover blurbs, I felt for several months that the collection was... well, it was as complete as I could make it. My priorities shifted again and I began work on another project, a novel-in-stories, that would be built on a couple of older pieces that didn't fit Indivisibility.
But then it began again, the haunting, the whispering. Characters from Indivisibility and others from my notes were telling me that they needed attention, their stories needed voice. And they were showing me the intangible lines of energy connecting them with each other, and suddenly I felt certain: I knew one more story really had to go in the book. Months passed with the glacial pace that is normal in the literary world, and no publishing contract was signed, so I finished the new story and added it to the manuscript. Thirteen, a baker's dozen, perfect.
So that's where I am now. Done. But how can I be confident that it won't happen again, those little voices pleading to be included? Addition, subtraction, revision, tinkering of every sort, can go on forever. This is not an easy question to answer. Do I have an unconscious desire to run away from success, to undermine my dreams, so I'll simply never finish? Well, if it's unconscious, my answer must be no, right? But I say it with surety: No. So am I finished this time? Yes. Evidence says I can't be sure, yet I feel sure. And therein lies the only answer to the question of how we know we're finished. Our feelings tell us. Call it intuition, call it vibration... it's something outside the realm of reason, so it's difficult for some of us to perceive, much less acknowledge.
"Feelings" had told me that I was finished before, but this time there is a distinct difference, a palpable sense of well-roundedness, like a thrown and fired pot in my hands. With practice, I've learned to pay closer attention to my inner cues; I've reached a deeper level of awareness of the universe inside. This feeling is different, and I trust it.
Oh, and there's one more bit of proof: my creative interest has moved on. My desire for that particular book, which once was focused on the intimate act of writing it, is now all about getting it dressed and out into the world.
So that's what Pollock meant. You know when you're finished making love because... you're finished making love.