OOne of my main fears before submitting a book is that I will die in the hours before the deadline, and all the work I have done will be for nothing because the editor will only have a canvas and the finished book itself will remain on a password-protected hard drive and eventually buried in a landfill.
I have long associated handing in a book and dying because the two seemed connected on an underground, unconscious level. Completing a great project is a form of death – something is over. But finishing isn’t something you hear a lot about in all the short courses, podcasts, MFAs, online articles, and books about the creative process.
It’s about getting started, developing characters, a writing routine, pitching to agents, and marketing. But we never talk to you about the end, the body and brain balance of the work, and those strange weeks following the delivery of a manuscript where we try little by little to enter the world, often with the clumsy gait of a newborn foal, but the sore back, neck, shoulders and arms of a mine worker.
After submitting my manuscript, the next 24 hours were difficult. I left my phone at Southern Cross station and my laptop in a restaurant, then once I got my phone I lost it again. Two weeks later, I still feel like I’m in some kind of twilight zone, not quite reintegrated into the world.
What happens when you finish a book?
Novelists are most likely to suffer from some form of melancholy, or even grief. They’ve finished a book, yes, but a world they’ve carried in their heads, which grows and takes shape like leaven, settles down and, in doing so, dies for them because it can no longer evolve. As the novel moves through the editing stage and into other people’s hands, a strange uneasiness may overtake the writer. They don’t want to let go.
Read an interview with many great novelists and they describe their book as their child.
“The novelist must not only love his characters – which you do, without even thinking about it, just as you love your children,” said Martin Amis.
Truman Capote went further: “Finishing a book is like taking a child to the garden and shooting it.”
For the memoirist, the finish has a different flavor. It is charged with self-awareness. This is my life – how will it be received? Did I make a terrible mistake? Will my family ever talk to me again? Did I reveal secrets that will ruin my reputation – OR even worse – bore the reader? Who cares about my stupid life anyway? I know a memoirist so anxious about the contents of her book that as soon as she pressed send on the manuscript, she vomited projectiles all over her desk.
And for someone who writes non-fiction – probably in the same vein as finishing his PhD – he’s questioned his subject from every angle and if he sees or hears about the subject again, he’ll scream. They dream of bonfires, fueled by their reference books.
With completion comes the dissolution of the dream state of creation – common to all writers, who only come out of creative fugue to feel the effects on their bodies and have to deal with all things neglected in the dream (a spouse who carried the load and children who grew old, a pet that was not walked, an overgrown garden, a neglected workplace and friends resentful, and their own bodies – broken and unexercised, stooped and aching).
And with all the writers, there is also the squaring of the dream book with the reality book.
There’s a part in the writing where you think you’re building some sort of utopia – nobody’s done it before, what you’re creating is beautiful. And so you go, whipping your body like a jockey entering the home stretch of the Melbourne Cup.
And then it’s in. What was your only goal – the thing you sacrificed everything for – suddenly becomes an object of disgust or, as Zadie Smith put it, “like walking around a cell you’ve been incarcerated in”.
All thoughts in the book are now discarded like a soiled handkerchief after a four year wank. You can’t bear to watch it again. Friends who received the manuscript and have comments but show up at this late stage – well, you don’t want to know. You prefer to talk about everything except. “But – but I read all 400 pages and took detailed notes!” they say. “I spent a week of my vacation there.”
But they might as well do a recount of their 2010 tax return. Your detachment is absolute. Until you see the cover of the book, and you are suddenly overwhelmed with love for that object that has consumed you so much, devouring years of your life with its puzzles and problems and its own mysterious life force.
But maybe the whole course and the podcast and the whole writing industry isn’t about endings, because as my editor Bridie Jabour says, you never really know when you’ve finished a book. Page proofs, edits, rewrites and corrections come back to you in an incessant dance until one day, without warning, the music stops.
It’s like you never know the last time you visited a nightclub. One day you stop going – it’s only by looking back that you can see the end.