The tension between the pursuit of finality and perpetual liminality in art has been persistent from the 20th century to the present. While the late 19th century Western literati generally agreed that art is never finished, the tide turned during the 20th century, particularly with the rise of new criticism, when the literati began to aspire for the wholeness of art.

In writing, the modern fair copy (a copy of the text after revisions) aims for finality and therefore fixity. Meanwhile, the draft, which was never consistently preserved represents what seems to be the very nature of art: unfinished, always in flux, always mutable.

Finality in a work of art is an illusion. A work of art can always be made better as long as the writer lives and perhaps even when he or she dies. Obviously, this belief is purely subjective. You can believe that your work is done and as the author, you have authority to declare it as such. But I think, there are benefits to seeing all of your work as a never finished draft.

  1. You see publication in a more reasonable lens. It is not the end of your career if you don’t get published. Publication can be seen as simply an interruption to a work that is never done.
  2. If you see all your work as draft (even those that were printed and published), then there is no reason why you shouldn’t share even works-in-progress or those that haven’t achieved enough maturity, such as seeds and seedlings. Doing so could benefit those who follow your work and who are students of it.
  3. All your work persists (even when you’re dead) by virtue of their incompletion (i.e., the draft is liminal).

In the talahardin, evergreens can still be changed although it is expected that they do so minutely. But this category does not signify finality. In fact, an evergreen can revert back to seedlings if a future insight necessitates that it undergoes more significant revisions.

The talahardin simply makes intentional what writers seem to intuitively believe: that all their works are never final and that even a published work can’t escape revision even if it’s just in the author’s imagination of the author. Furthermore, even if the author believes in the illusion of finality, any reader could easily disagree. A text has a life of its own and all text especially in an age when writing technology supports and encourages constant revision, has a potential to be immortal (see the draft flourishes through cheap and democratized technology).


Scandura, Jani. “The Matter of Drafts.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, edited by Paula Rabinowitz, Oxford University Press, 2020. (Crossref),

”In the eyes of these lovers of anxiety and perfection, a work is never complete–a word which to them is meaningless—but abandoned; and this abandonment, which delivers the work to the flames or to the public (whether it be the result of weariness or the necessity of delivering), is for them a kind of accident comparable to the interruption of a thought annulled by fatigue, an importunate person, or some sensation.” (Paul Valéry, “Concerning ‘Le Cimetière Marin’” 140–141)

A literary work could be “fixed” on paper as a manuscript draft, but still paradoxically remain unfixed, changeable, perpetually in the process of being rewritten. How “fixed”—even when in fair copy, even when published—could any work could be while an author still lived? Writers had the persnickety habit of rewriting, revising, and updating even works that had been previously printed and sold.

The literary draft, or lost draft, or unwritten draft offers perpetual potential—it persists—by virtue of its incompletion.

Werner’s analysis of the distinction between the fair copy and the draft is important. The modern fair copy, she writes, aspires to fixity and definitiveness as “witness” to a text and thus “bears the greatest resemblance to its classical and medieval forerunners.” Few “drafts” were kept before the mid-18th century; it was not until the 19th century that writers consciously and consistently preserved them. But it is the draft, Werner argues, that “problematical ‘other’ of the fair copy—that emerges as the most ‘modern’.” It remains in the realm of the private, a trace of the secret life of writing, bearing the imprint of process and flux.

She borrows the term “mouvance” (or mutability) introduced by Paul Zumthor to describe the intervocal play between oral and written culture in medieval culture and the tendency toward variation found in medieval manuscripts copied by different anonymous scribes. In Werner’s account, “mouvance” can be said to characterize the variation in modern texts found within different authorial drafts, a characteristic, she observes, that makes the modern “text non-identical to itself.” With a closer eye to Zumthor’s definition, however, mouvance might be employed with regard to modern manuscripts as a way of explaining the network of oral, material, and technological variations that affect the production of a literary text. Indeed, mouvance might include the linguistic and written variations among different drafts, verbal and written exchanges by collaborators and editors, as well as readings and/or performances of a literary text. The draft “reveals only the illusion of genesis, the part of the creative process that has been inscribed on paper,” writes Werner, drawing on Benedetto Croce’s aesthetics. “It is a fallen document, a fragment of the intellectual, abstract, ideal genesis of the work that remains forever beyond understanding.”

While this compensatory drive to reconstruct and “make whole” the process of writing was not adopted systematically or in earnest until the 20th century, by the end of the 19th century, Western critics were generally aware of the unfinished and indeterminate nature of writing and literature.

“no good work can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.” (Thomas McFarland)