One of my main fears before submitting a book is that I will die in the hours before the deadline, and all the work I will have done will be for nothing because the publisher will only have an outline and the completed book itself will remain on a password-protected hard drive and ultimately buried in landfill.
I have long associated handing in a book and dying because the two seemed connected on some subterranean, unconscious level. Finishing a major project is a form of death – something has ended. But finishing is not something you hear much about in all the short courses, podcasts, MFAs, online articles and books on the creative process.
It’s all about starting, developing characters, a writing routine, pitching to agents and marketing. But you never get told about the end, about the toll on body and brain cells of the work, and those strange weeks that follow the handing in of a manuscript where you gradually try and re-enter the world, often with the awkward gait of a newborn foal, but the aching back, neck, shoulders and arms of a pit labourer.
After I handed in my manuscript, the following 24 hours were fraught. I left my phone at Southern Cross Station and my laptop in a restaurant, and then once my phone had been retrieved, I lost it again. Two weeks on and I still feel like I’m in some sort of twilight zone, not quite reintegrated with the world.
So what happens when you finish a book?
Novelists are the ones most likely to suffer from a form of melancholia – grief even. They have finished a book, yes, but a world they have carried inside their heads, growing and taking shape like a sourdough starter, becomes set, and in doing so, 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 fretfulness can surprise 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 has to 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: “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the backyard and shot it.”
For the memoirist, finishing has a different flavour. It is fraught with self-consciousness. This is my life – how will it be received? Have I made a terrible error? Will my family ever talk to me again? Have I revealed secrets that will ruin my reputation – OR even worse – bore the reader? Who cares about my dumb life anyway? I know one memoirist so anxious about the content of her book that as soon as she pressed send on the manuscript, she projectile-vomited all over her desk.
And for someone writing nonfiction – probably in a similar vein to finishing their PhD – they have interrogated their subject from every angle and if they ever see or hear of the topic again, they will scream. They dream of bonfires, fed by their reference books.
With completion, there is the dissolution of creation’s dream state – common to all writers, who exit the creative fugue only to feel the toll on their body and must face up to all the things they’ve neglected in the dream (a spouse who has been carrying the load and children who have aged, a pet that hasn’t been walked, an overgrown garden, a neglected workplace and resentful friends, and their own body – broken and unexercised, hunched and aching).
And with all 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 are building a kind of utopia – no one has done this before, what you are creating is magnificent. And so you keep going, whipping your body like a jockey entering the final straight at the Melbourne Cup.
And then it’s in. What was your sole focus – the thing you sacrificed it all for – suddenly becomes an object of disgust or, as Zadie Smith put it, “like taking a tour of a cell in which you were once incarcerated”.
All thoughts of the book now get flicked aside like a tissue soiled after a four year wank. You can’t bear to look at it again. Friends who’ve been given the manuscript and have feedback but turn up at this late stage – well, you don’t want to know. You’d rather talk about anything but. “But – but I’ve read all 400 pages and made detailed notes!” they say. “I spent a week of my holidays on it.”
But they may as well be giving a recount of their 2010 tax return. Your detachment is absolute. Until you see the cover of the book, and suddenly you are flooded with love for this object that so consumed you, eating years of your life with its puzzles and problems and its own mysterious life force.
But maybe all the courses and the podcast and the whole writing industry don’t talk about endings, because as my editor Bridie Jabour says, you never really know when you’ve finished a book. Page proofs and edits and rewrites and corrections come back to you in a ceaseless dance until one day, without warning, the music just stops.
It’s like you never know the last time you visited a nightclub. One day you just stop going – it’s only looking back that you can see the ending.