ISLANDone of my biggest fears before I submit a book is that I will die in the hours before the deadline and all the work I will have done will be in vain because the publisher will only have one outline, and the finished book remains on a password protected hard drive and eventually buried in landfill.
I have long associated with handing over a book and dying because the two seemed connected on some underground, unconscious level. Finishing a big project is a kind of death – something is over. But finishing is not something you hear much about in all the short courses, podcasts, MFAs, online articles and books about the creative process.
It’s about starting, developing characters, a writing routine, pitching to agents and marketing. But one is never told about the end, about the strain on the work’s body and brain cells and the strange weeks that follow the submission of a manuscript, where one gradually tries to step into the world again, often with the awkward gait. a newborn foal, but a miner’s sore back, neck, shoulders and arms.
After I submitted my manuscript, the following 24 hours were filled. I left my phone at Southern Cross Station and my laptop in a restaurant, and when my phone was picked up, I lost it again. Two weeks later and I still feel like I’m in a kind of twilight zone, not completely reintegrated with the world.
So what happens when you finish a book?
Novelists are the ones most likely to suffer from some form of melancholy – even grief. They are done with a book, yes, but a world they have carried inside their heads, growing and taking shape like a sourdough starter, is set, and thereby it dies for them because it can no longer evolve. As the novel moves to the editing stage and into the hands of others, a strange annoyance may surprise the author. They will not let go.
Read an interview with many great novelists and they describe their book as their child.
“The novelist should not only love his characters – which you do, without even thinking about it, just as you love your children,” said Martin Amis.
Truman Capote took it further: “Completing a book is like you took a child out in the backyard and shot it.”
For the memoir writer, finishing has a different taste. It is filled with self-awareness. This is my life – how will it be received? Have I made a terrible mistake? Will my family ever talk to me again? Have I revealed secrets that will ruin my reputation – OR even worse – bored reader? Who cares about my stupid life at all? I know a memoir writer who was so anxious about the contents of her book that as soon as she pressed send on the manuscript, she threw up all over her desk.
And for someone who writes non-fiction – probably in the same way as completing their PhD. – they have asked their subject from all angles, and if they ever see or hear about the subject again, they will scream. They dream of bonfires, fed by their reference books.
With completion, there is the dissolution of the dream state of creation – common to all writers who leave the creative fugue only to feel the strain on their body and have to watch out for all the things they have neglected in the dream (a spouse who has borne the burden and children who have grown older, a pet that has not walked, an overgrown garden, a neglected workplace and outraged friends and their own bodies – crushed and unmotivated, crooked and painful).
And with all the writers, there is also a squaring of the dream book with the reality book.
There is a part of the scripture where you think you are building a kind of utopia – no one has done this before, what you create is magnificent. And then you go on and whip your body like a jockey going straight into the final of the Melbourne Cup.
And then it’s in. What was your only focus – what you sacrificed it all for – suddenly becomes an object of disgust or, as Zadie Smith put it, “like taking a tour of a cell where you once were trapped “.
All thoughts of the book are now being thrown aside like a dirty tissue after four years of guarding. You can not bear to look at it again. Friends who have received the manuscript and have feedback, but show up at this late hour – yes, you do not want to know. You would rather talk about anything other than. “But – but I’ve read all 400 pages and made detailed notes!” they say. “I spent a week of my vacation on it.”
But they might as well give a recount of their tax return for 2010. Your detachment is absolute. Until you see the cover of the book, and suddenly you are flooded with love for this object that then devoured you, eating years of your life with its riddles and problems and its own mysterious life force.
But maybe all the courses and podcasts and the whole writing industry are not talking about endings, because as my editor Bridie Jabour says, you never really know when you’ll finish a book. Page correction and edits and rewrites and corrections come back to you in a relentless dance until one day, without warning, the music just stops.
It’s like you never know when you last visited a nightclub. One day you just stop – it is only by looking back that you can see the end.