Back in January I wrote that I thought I would be able to finish my novel by putting in a solid month of work. I suppose the general rule of thumb is that you need to take an estimate like that and multiply it by four (or, given my history, by infinity). Still, I actually think I would have been able to do it if life had not intervened; there were a number of distractions, foremost among them Alice’s new job as a writer for the TV show Billions, which forced me to assume more childcare duties and various other responsibilities, significantly compromising my daily writing time.
Mind you, no complaints on this front (because who wouldn’t want their significant other to land an amazing job?), but one month turned into four. Then, this past Saturday, to my delight and astonishment, I actually got there. I completed what I set out to do seven years–or more accurately five decades–ago. I won’t say I finished my novel (because as we all know they’re never finished). But I reached the end of a draft. I wrote the final sentence of the first actual novel I have ever managed to “complete.”
If you had told me when I was 19 and embarking on my maiden fictive voyage that I wouldn’t reach the far shore until I was 61, I would have seriously questioned your sanity–just as you might now question mine. Seriously, who keeps sailing into the same hurricane-force headwind for 42 years? And why?
Alice, in fact, asked me that very thing. “You’ve written memoirs and biographies. You’ve proven to yourself that you could write and publish a book. Why was it so goddamn important to you to write a novel?”
I tried to explain. “Reading novels,” I began, “is what made me want to become a writer in the first place. That’s no small thing. Every single book that made an impact on me in my teens and twenties was a novel (with the exception of Frank Conroy’s Stop/Time–a memoir that read like a novel). I wanted to be able to do to other people what those writers did to me. God, I wanted to be able to do that!”
The problem was, writing a novel turned out to be hard. Really hard. Harder than Chinese Algebra, as Tom Waits once said about love. So why did I persist? My explanation to Alice though true, somehow doesn’t really explain my doggedness. Maybe nothing does.
I spent six years on my second crack at a novel before finally abandoning it on my 30th birthday. Over the years, though I never again spent as much time on any one effort until the present one, I cumulatively spent at least half my life in wheel-spinning futility. Today, the bodies and pages of these aborted efforts litter the road behind me like casualties of war. Until now, the novel always won the war and I always lost.
I came to admire anyone who could start and finish a novel, no matter how bad the end result. In some ways, it seemed to me that it was even harder and took more character to finish writing a bad novel than a good one. I’ve since realized I was probably wrong on that count. The truth is, most bad writers tend to be too sure of themselves; they’re insulated from self-doubt, which is actually helpful in getting to the end.
One of the reasons the current book took me seven years to complete is that I started it over from page one at least three times. Oh, there were reasons that went beyond the usual self-loathing and flagging conviction. The interruption of a full-time job and a toddler, the necessity to make money–I’d come back to the book after time away and find that I needed to start anew just to find my way back in. Yes, this is rationalization. Still….If you want to be kind to me, you’ll allow that it’s only taken me two years to actually complete my first draft, since that’s the last time I persuaded myself that I needed to start over from the beginning.
I’m proud of myself for having finally broken through the paper ceiling this time. I also feel a bit embarrassed and ashamed, not least because I’m not really done. My plan, now that I’ve finished this draft is to wait a few weeks, then take a deep breath and read it through, from page 1 to page 298 where it ends (short, right? After all this time I ought to have written Ulysses or Magic Mountain–or at least some overly long tome that would help prop open a door). I already know that the editor in me will see both good and bad in what I’ve done, and will have strong opinions about what to do next. I actually look forward to that. I look forward to deepening the characters, shading them, cutting, refining, adding, rearranging, etc. I’m guessing it will take me at least a couple of months to do what I need to do. In fact, better multiply that by at least two, given my track record. After I’ve done what I can do, I’ll give it to one or two people I trust, who will I hope have the necessary objectivity to tell me what I should do after that.
What I feel right now, honestly, is a sense of relief. A monkey off my back. I hope the book will ultimately be seen as worthwhile and publishable. I hope that it will be read. I truly hope that at least one person will read it and have the same experience I had when I read books like Dog Soldiers and The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Sun Also Rises and The Moviegoer; that it will inspire them, that it will make them want to write a novel themselves, that it will make them want to put themselves through the same kind of torture that I have put myself through all these years.
Only then will I truly feel that the circle is complete.