I recently got a healthy dose of inspiration from a master – by the name of Matisse.
It happened in the Metropolitan Museum where there’s a current Matisse exhibit. I’ve seen many of the paintings before but this exhibit is unique, for side by side with famous works are the persistent efforts that led to the final result. Matisse was a champion reviser – openly so. Even his famed “Young Sailor” is displayed in versions labeled “11” and “111.” For most artists the second version would have been great enough, but Matisse, never satisfied, insisted on exploring further and found his way to the strikingly simplified third version. And what multiple varied images of “The Dream” before it finally evolved into a vibrant evocative shape. As the program notes, Matisse was constantly in the “dogged pursuit of the truth.”

Why do I find this inspiring? Because it’s giving me faith to reconsider some of my short stories that I’d given up on. I’ve just gone back to one I’d already rewritten numerous times, giving it new life through a different point of view that had eluded me for years. Sometimes you have to keep pursuing through revision after revision – as Matisse did so tirelessly – before you reach the point where you feel yes, this is the way it should be.

I also realize it isn’t a matter of simply adding on to a previous version, but starting from scratch to gain a totally new vision – whether you’re an artist, writer, or merely struggling to compose a letter (or blog!). As someone said of Richard Blanco, this year’s Inaugural poet, “He doesn’t simply revise; he re-imagines.”

BUT (there’s always a “but,” isn’t there?) a pitfall lies in wait. For when does revising become overkill? The question to ask ourselves is: “Am I making it better– or just different?”

Each time I go to a lecture and authors ask for questions from the audience my hand automatically waves – always with the same question: “How do you know when a piece is finished and you can let it go?” I’ve gotten all sorts of replies, ranging from candid to coy. But my favorite answer is from a well-known writer who said bluntly, “When I can’t stand working on it any more.”

What would Matisse tell me? Probably not answer at all. He’d be too busy painting another version of a masterpiece.


Books :”Widow’s Walk” – available through; “Turning Toward Tomorrow”; “Ten Women of Valor” – or