Saturday, January 07, 2012

(Near) The End

I keep a book of essays close by and pick it up every now and again to see what those who have written and published novels have to say about it all. The book is called The Secret Miracle: The Novelist's Handbook (Holt, 2010). The book is neither a handbook nor much of a secret to those of us who write, but it is a great resource for inspiration and for confirming that, as we peck our way through 300 pages of fiction, we're not completely insane for the task.

The book is broken up into questions addressed to many well-known, prolific or just-beginning writers, and their answers. A recent question caught my interest: "How do you approach the end of a book?" I think many of us readers and writers have the impression that, for those who write for a living, writing (and finishing) a novel must be commonplace. This book, and this question in particular, disproves such a myth. Answers include, in part, "With mounting anxiety (Paul Auster) ... "With very intense exhilaration" (Christina Garcia) ... "Oh, with relief" (Colm Toibin) ... "Dumbfounded awe and moments of panic" (Francisco Goldman) ... "With caution" (Daniel Handler) ... "with fear and excitement" (Jennifer Egan) ... "In great haste, with my breath held (Michael Chabon) ... "You don't approach it. It approaches you." (Claire Messud).

As I reach the end of the book I'm working on (and my third manuscript), I know just where each of these writers is coming from. Whether you've worked on a book for eight hours a day for a long time, or 500 words a day for an even longer time, finishing that book is an exciting, frightening, happy and sad thing to do. As Edwidge Danticat answered, she approaches the end "With great trepidation ... By then I'm also dealing with my own sadness about leaving these characters behind ... "

Long days and nights have been spent with the characters I've created. I find myself in mundane situations - taking the kids to school, walking through the grocery store, cooking dinner or making a transaction at the bank - and wondering how this or that character might behave in such a situation. I drift into sleep thinking about them and wake up with them each morning. And now, it's nearly over.

That's not to say the work is over, of course. I'm only talking about a first draft here. Finishing a first draft reminds me of being a kid (most things remind me of being a kid) and made to rake the leaves in our yard. We lived in a house in East Memphis shaded by massive oaks, magnolias, dogwoods and one angry, little crab apple tree. Every so often I was told to go out and clean up the yard. I would rake and rake and rake the leaves into a pile, or a series of piles, yet each time I thought I might be finished I would look back and more had fallen. Or I'd find that I partially scattered a pile while raking another. And when I went to neaten up that pile I disturbed something in my wake that needed attention. I must have looked confused and lost in our front yard, going from corner to corner raking up a few leaves here and then to the next to rearrange.

This is how the end is to me. I'm a matter of days from finishing this first draft, yet I'll add some detail as I'm going along and realize it references back to something that should have happened three chapters prior. So I go back and add that bit in (I rake those leaves into a pile), and that disturbs a thought or two in the following chapter. Or I'll think better of a conversation in the last chapter, revise it, and then make a note to myself that a main character needs to mention that paragraph in the next chapter.

My yard must look like a mess, but it's getting there.

Of course, once it's where I think it should be, once that massive pile of leaves is there in front of me so I can stand back, lean on my rake, and marvel at it, I know my task isn't complete. I know the next thing I'll want to do is to let some of my friends, those who are willing, run through that pile of leaves energetically and with reckless abandon. They'll want to know how deep the leaves are, how soft, examine the color and smell of them, and try to determine from which trees they all fell. And they'll make a mess of it, I know. That's all part of it. I'll come in behind them with my well-rested rake and try to put it all back together again and, hopefully, those friends will be willing to help.

The greatest anxiety, of course, comes after it's all finished; once those leaves are bagged up and are placed on the curb for pick-up. Because then the fear becomes that they won't get picked up at all, and that they'll just sit there as traffic whizzes by, becoming moldy and breaking down into compost.

I've already got a couple of bags going to worm shit out there, I can see them from where I sit. Here's hoping the end of this book will come easily, that the revision will go smoothly and that someone will stop at my curb and heft that bag into their truck.