The words “perfection” and “perfect” come to us from the Latin perficio, “to finish” or “to bring to an end.”
I’ve recently begun adapting a novel into screenplay form. Because the book tells its tale compactly, in 132 pages, some have called it a novella. I wince a bit at literary labels that want to define a work by its length. Isn’t a short story simply a story? We don’t call a novel “a long story.”
Playwrights, too, are fond of naming their literary children for their size—one-act, full-length, ten-minute play. I understand the distinctions, but a play is a play is a play. Content and form, size and scope, think of it how you will. Shakespeare’s Hamlet could not have been told in ten pages (though, for kicks and giggles, many a writer-trickster has successfully reduced Hamlet to just that length), and the best of so-called “ten-minute” plays would lose their delicate theatrical power if they were even one page, one minute, longer.
Dare to ask Edward Albee what the new play he’s writing is about and he will say, “It’s about 90 minutes.” While his prickly pithiness is a means by which to protect the sanctity of his process, Albee’s at-the-ready, stiletto reply cuts to an important truth about art and dimension: a short painting? A full-length poem? Of course not. A thing is complete in its own completeness.
Still, while the literary lore of Ernest Hemingway’s six-word tale—“For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”—persists, narratives as we have understood and crafted them since what?—Gilgamesh?—do adhere to certain principles of form and, yes, length in order to fulfill reader and audience (and MFA creative thesis!) expectation. But exactly how many words must come between “Once upon a time,” and “happily ever after” before we can kiss the baby good night?
In traditional Armenian storytelling a tale always begins with, “There was and there was not”: There was and there was not a king who had three sons. And here’s the coda that traditionally brings every Armenian tale to its end: “Three apples fell from heaven: one for the teller of this tale, one for the listener, and one for the person who heeds the teller’s words.”
After writing and revising for what can seem like a thousand years, a writer dares to say to herself, “I think it’s done.” Her certain uncertainty—I have and I have not written a book, as the Armenian storyteller might have it—acknowledges the unknowable force, the magic that is both in and out of the writer’s hands, which brings a work to its sudden completeness. As a character says with wonder at the very end of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, “Isn’t it amazing how the play fit exactly between the time that the lights came up and the lights went down?”