When the Novel is Finished

“After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love.”


“I guess I am terrified to write “finish” on the book for fear I myself will be finished.

“Suddenly I feel lonely in a curious kind of way. I guess I am afraid. That always comes near the end of a book—the fear that you have not accomplished what you started to do.

“In a short time that will be done and then it will not be mine anymore. Other people will take it over and own it and it will drift away from me as though I had never been a part of it. I dread that time because one can never pull it back, it’s like shouting good-bye to someone going off in a bus and no one can hear because of the roar of the motor.

“Well—then the book is done. It has no virtue any more. The writer wants to cry out, “Bring it back! Let me rewrite it,” or better: “Let me burn it. Don’t let it out in the unfriendly cold in that condition.”

“When a book is finally out of my hands I feel bereft. It is the absence of all those sentences that had circulated through me for a period of my life. A complex root system, extracted.”

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.”

“We might compare getting started on a story to starting a relationship (oh, that first time together, lying down skin-to-skin!), or beginning a novel to committing to a marriage. Each long-term liaison is laden with its own miracles and traps: There is the young marriage, the first marriage, the late marriage in which indolent time does not exist and all is revealed at the first touch. There is the ecstasy-inducing, doomed, bipolar heights-and-depths marriage, and the brain-shattering cataclysm that never achieves consummation but is instead an extended hallucinatory preparation. There is the deep, long, enduring marathon that wakes and sleeps, steadily increasing as pages mount and the light shifts day to night, season to season. All are relationships that stay alive until the book is done and moves beyond the mind that lived within it. The love affair, like a years-long phase of sexual intoxication between lovers, is over, and the book takes with it a newly created soul bound to no human being, no physical time or sensory need. It is alive and it may live for hundreds of years, unsullied, undiminished. It may be read or lie dormant but remains supremely itself, tension strung, pitch and nuance perfectly attune, a world preserved in love and grief, continually reborn.”

“In the very act of completing the work we are separated from it. One way or another, the writer loses writing: the writer loses the book. Opposing oblivion, we begin to understand that language is the way in and the way out.”

…when one has published a book, about all that one has failed to do, all that one hasn’t put in it, all that one wanted to put in, all that one would add to be complete, because it’s so difficult to hem things in with writing and to say everything with words. When the book is finished, one remains fatally disappointed.

“Sitting in a bar one night after workshop, the novel I had come to Iowa to write completed only days earlier, I said to Frank Conroy, ‘I feel like a ghost. It’s like Mike,’ my book’s first-person narrator, not Michael Jordan, ‘left my body and I don’t know who I am anymore. It’s like I was him and now he’s gone.’

He laughed, then said, ‘Hey, the illusion worked. That’s what its supposed to do.’

“Fine. But what happens to me when the illusion vanishes, when the book wears me out and skips off to be pampered by some loving proofreader who niggles away at all the tiny flaws I’ve left behind to deface an otherwise perfect story, my every literary shortcoming noted, every long sentence with too many dashes and ellipses and, what else?—triple metaphors that test the patience of readers like show-offy kids because they slow a story down till it’s moving like a supermarket checkout line and make reviewers want to yell like the movie directors they wish they were—’Cut!’—every bit of narrative exuberance condemned as ‘self indulgent.’ (They should only know I don’t know who I am, so how can I indulge myself?!) And while the book has marketing people cooing over it (until the day it’s born and bombs) and artists designing its cover and everybody in the house and every would-be buyer gets to handle it, where am I? At home night-sweating how much better the book could have been, despairing over missed opportunities, insights that came too late, wisdom deferred.”

“In order to let this book go, I need to hate it, because I’ll miss it so badly. Publication means snatching its life away. A part of me goes with it. Nothing will fill the absence but another project, another imaginary world. Nothing will save me but the act of writing.”

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist