I’ve written here before about that chart on my kindergarten wall, and the stars you earned beside your name for showing you had mastered important skills: say your address, recite the alphabet, use scissors, tie your shoes, become a member of the Clean Plate Club.
This last one wasn’t about washing dishes. To become a member of the Clean Plate Club, you had to bring Miss Marcelli a note from your mother (of course it was your mother, and not your father – we’re talking 1962), vouching that you had eaten everything on your dinner plate for x meals in a row. I don’t remember the value of x. But half a century later, the value of finishing your food (and, by extension, the shame of leaving some food unconsumed) remains deeply entrenched.
What was Miss Marcelli trying to teach us? That it’s bad to waste. Especially food. And especially when children are starving in Europe /China/Africa.
It is bad to waste food. There’s a scene in my book in which a child keeps taking bagels from a platter and taking just one bite from each before abandoning them – behavior that’s presented as a comment on his parents. But it’s also bad to feel compelled, and even worse to compel others, to eat everything that’s put in front of you, whether or not you’re actually hungry. For someone who’s trying to eat less, or better, the Clean Plate Club mind-set can be a major obstacle.
Miss Macelli’s lesson wasn’t just about eating, though. It was also more general, about finishing what you begin. Following through. Making good on your promises and fulfilling your obligations, even if they’re only to yourself. That message has stayed with me, too. It pins me to my seat at the movies until the last of the credits have rolled. It keeps me slogging through books I’m reading even after I’ve lost interest. And it nags at my conscience when I consider the multitude of projects I have begun and left unfinished.
It goes without saying that it’s good to complete stuff. And quitting can be a sign of bigger problems, like laziness, short attention, fear of failure – or even fear of success. But stopping before the end isn’t always bad. If the story you’re reading sucks, why should you waste your time wading through it? And if the one you’re writing isn’t working, well, maybe you just need to try harder. Or longer. But it also might be the wrong story. Or the wrong time to write it. Even if your work doesn’t add up to a viable project, it can still be good exercise. And who knows when or how those lost fragments might resurface?
Sure, finishing is good. But so is knowing when to stop. Even if it does leave a less-than-clean plate.