Most days there are at least fifteen documents open on my laptop. These consist of works in various stages, some newly drafted or in mid-revision, and others that seem close, but remain suspended in a state of near-completion. Generally, the newer works get the attention while the nearly finished are deferred. I have difficulty with that final phase, when the questions narrow and the focus tightens, and as a result, I tend to temporize. This includes looking for answers outside the work—trolling online articles or revisiting well-loved books and essays—though this is nothing more than distraction disguised as research. Yet I do it all the same, squandering time and energy while the work remains undone. “A story can rot,” Jane Hamilton says, and the state of the drop-down list is a stark reminder of how precarious finishing can be.
“Finish what you start,” Colm Tóibín says, words that ring in my head each time I sit down to write. An unfinished work holds all the grand ambition of its beginning; the possibilities are still in play and the missteps have yet to be uncovered. Unlike the beginning, or the wide, uncharted middle, each instance of finishing takes place differently, determined by solutions that apply to that work alone. I tell myself that finishing, variable as the process may be, is merely another stage of creative production. So why does it seem so difficult?
Temperamentally, I lean toward beginnings. At that stage a draft is forgiving. The parts don’t relate, there are digressions and dead ends, there’s no thematic center—but these things scarcely matter. It’s the point Edward Said called “the first step in the intentional production of meaning.” Newly crafted, the beginning fascinates with a strangeness, the novelty of the never-seen.
Conversely, the term “final revision” sounds a bit ruthless. I’m uncomfortable with endings, written and otherwise—the kind of person who, off the page, dreads leave-taking and tends to draw out goodbyes. I’ve come to terms with this aspect of my makeup, and now that I’m a certain age, I can observe it with some objectivity. All the same, the tendency has seeped into my work habits. There is the hopefulness of beginnings, the ambivalence of endings. All the while, Tóibín’s caveat sounds in my brain. A work started must be finished.
In a recent interview, the novelist Lily King put the process into a clearer light. With the start of every new work, she explains, there is a vivid sense of what the work could be, yet once underway, its patchy nature is revealed. This stage exposes the gaps in what the writer thought she knew about her imagined idea, in her ability, her goals, and herself. I recognize this stage in the proverbial disappointment it brings. Reading each line, questions crop up and choices that first seemed novel appear tinny and unexceptional. This is what King calls the “intellectualized version” of an idea, all gut feeling and rough expression. “I think the trick is to accomplish more than you initially anticipated,” she says. “That initial vision of the book is limited, because you don’t have the familiarity, the intimacy, with the material yet.”
This aspect of not-knowing drives discovery, but it can also generate obstacles. What else is an early draft but a struggle to make sense of that first “limited vision”? Here’s King again:
I try really hard not to pay attention to the voice who says it’s really bad and will never come out all right. That voice comes right back the minute you start a new novel and really can be very persistent and distracting and I just try to block it out and remember that I did get to the end of the book I just finished, and it wasn’t the complete disaster the voice predicted.
The dismay caused by not-knowing is a factor of the writer’s experience. As King points out, one’s attitude toward an incomplete work is mitigated by a track record of completion. Experience can temper the fear of failure and restore the writer’s equanimity.
Then there’s the issue of what I call a writer’s generative style, which can range from producing a draft in full on the first try to prolonged struggling with a single sentence. Neuroscience describes the production of ideas as the culmination of a series of brain states. These are built on the neural actions of gathering, followed by gestation and eventually, retrieval. There are writers who articulate their thoughts in a linear fashion, but I’m not one of them. My thoughts tend to develop incrementally, and I often think that if my brain worked differently, I’d get more done. I’d finish more quickly.
The crux of finishing resides in those final textual adjustments, both macro and micro. There is often a need for time and patience—time away from the work and time to let ideas percolate. Unexpected solutions can snap into place because you decided to go out for coffee and the person ahead of you in line said something about her troublesome roommate, and suddenly the answer you’d been struggling with is presented whole. Luck, it seems, is part of persistence, or maybe it’s the reward.
Ambition plays a role in finishing, too. Ambition of concept, structure, and language. But like not-knowing, ambition also produces obstacles. Ambition is the writer demanding more of herself, her style, her control of the material. When a work is finished, when the obstacles have been overcome, there is relief, and pleasure, that what first seemed impossible was achieved.
No less daunting are the standard external obstacles. A job, family, health, the pull to a social realm that revives and sustains. There are time constraints and bad work habits, interruptions, obligations that can’t be put off. Overcoming these, as best one can, involves the usual ploys of self-management: clearing the calendar, closing the door, preparing the mind to separate from the world.
When first starting a new work, that separation from the world can seem an idyll, but on finishing, it can feel like entrapment. Fatigue can set in. What is finishing fatigue exactly? I know what mine is. In that final stage, what stands between me and my completed work is a set of questions, a kind of algebraic sum that, when answered, unites the parts into a whole. I’ve never been good at reasoning out formulae, solving problems that require analysis of multiple factors, or integrating detail into an abstract larger whole. In nearly every instance of finishing, these shortcomings are evident in the difficulty I have answering a draft’s final questions. That, most often, is the reason behind my reluctance to finish. Answering a draft’s final questions suggests a calculation as bewildering as an algebraic sum.
Growing up, I had all sorts of ambitions. My father was an artist who at a young age excelled in science and engineering. When I was in elementary school, he often remarked, in a way that always surprised and thrilled me, that someday I’d go to medical school. I wanted to please my father, so I harbored the ambition for myself, imagining I would indeed study medicine, despite the reality of my grades which, outside of reading and art, were at best average. Amazingly, the aim persisted in high school, despite my failing grades in chemistry and math, and it wasn’t until college that I finally understood I would never go to medical school. By then I understood I was a terrible student, undisciplined, impulsive, more in love with ideas than their execution, a student who tended to abandon one ambition for the next.
For a time, I thought I’d be an actor. In college, I auditioned for the part of Anne Boleyn in a two-person play and won the role. The part of Henry VIII had already been cast and was being played by the theater manager. This was in a community college in a part of rural Northern California where, if you needed someone to play Henry VIII, you could tap the theater staff. I was nineteen, and the stage manager was far older. Exactly how much older, I don’t know, but intimidated by his clipped beard and air of gravitas, I quickly began to doubt myself. I imagined his skill and knowledge of the material far exceeded my own and was soon convinced I could never play Anne Boleyn to his Henry. Where once I’d eagerly anticipated playing the part, I began to dread it. When the director asked if I could play the part without my glasses, I saw my way out. Impossible, I said, I can’t be onstage without them. I’m too myopic.
Soon after, I signed up for a painting class. From a young age, I’d had a facility for drawing, and found myself confident in the milieu of the painting studio. I learned how to build stretcher bars and prime canvas; I studied theory and practice—of color, composition, light, and form. My visual ideas often emerged whole, and in those early years, my ambitions seemed on a scale with my ability. I could finish a painting without getting mired in questions or succumbing to doubt—until two years later, when I arrived at art school in San Francisco. The school was known for its confrontational, sometimes scathing class critiques, but the work being done there was exciting, at the forefront of the eighties’ figurative style. It was there, as the demands of the work increased, that I hit a rough patch.
In my second and final year, I began work on a canvas. It was comparatively large—sixty inches wide by thirty-six high—and the subject was a pair of shoes on a floor in a darkened room. The scene was intended to be mysterious, set in half-light and heavily shadowed. I was painting then in a style that used glazes, thin applications of oil paint built in gradual layers. The shoes, I have to say, turned out great, with a faint light glancing the vamp, but the remaining ninety percent of the picture—the room, the window, the shadows and half-light—overwhelmed me with technical demands.
In hindsight, the scale of the work made the use of underpainting and glazes nearly impossible. Glaze techniques, exemplified by the seventeenth-century Dutch painters like Vermeer, were traditionally used on a small scale to emphasize central elements of a picture, like a subject’s face, with larger areas handled with a looser, freer application. That approach would have been a logical solution for my painting, but I failed to let the work grow beyond my original idea. Ambition produced an obstacle, and required I rethink my notion of the picture, but I failed to push through. The painting of shoes in a dark room became the first I couldn’t finish.
In the process of writing his novels, Michael Chabon says he reaches a point where the book seems like “an utter flop,” but experience gets him through the bad patches. “The lesson I’ve learned is that you do come out the other side with a clear understanding of what you’re doing.”
My fear of playing Anne Boleyn was my complicated encounter with ambition. If I hadn’t been derailed by my leading man to-be, I might have taken the role, confronted my limitations, and learned something about acting. As it happened, turning down the role only meant encountering the issue later in art school. Different medium, same problem. At the time, I didn’t understand that being convinced you’re an utter flop is an essential step of the creative process.
Putting time and distance between oneself and the work is probably one of the most effective things a writer can do toward finishing. How much time away? For some, it’s two days. For others, two weeks. In her essay “That Crafty Feeling,” Zadie Smith advises the term be three months, but “a year or more is ideal.” She calls this interval “stepping away from the vehicle.”
In another of Smith’s essays, “Middlemarch and Everybody,” she recounts George Eliot’s completion of her novel, and the importance time away from the work had on its completion. From Eliot’s journals, Smith tells us, we know that Middlemarch was begun in 1869, and at its start was “a story of a young, progressive doctor called Lydgate whose arrival in a provincial town coincides with the 1832 Reform Bill debates. Work on it goes slowly, painfully...” Later that same year, presumably discouraged by the lack of progress, Eliot begins a different work, a second story she calls Miss Brooke, “and finds she can write a hundred pages in a month. To a novelist, fluidity is the ultimate good omen; suddenly difficult problems are simply solved, intractable structural knots loosen themselves, and you come upon the key without even recognizing that this is what you hold.”
What Eliot did then, as Smith observes, is interesting. In late 1871, Eliot joins the two stories and ends up with an unexpected and pleasing narrative design. Suddenly, the separate points of view, actions, and goals find their bearing. The characters and situations now complement each other, forming a counterpoint Smith calls “the Eliot effect, the narrative equivalent of surround sound.” Time and distance away from her initial vision produced a new, more complex and exciting story. Those two years Eliot spent not-knowing were as essential to the work as the characters of Brooke and Lydgate.
As Smith notes, Eliot’s journals contain no mention of this pivotal creative turn, though in an entry logged after the burst of writing that launched Miss Brooke, she wrote, “In my private lot I am unspeakably happy, loving and beloved.”
When it comes to finishing, writers have specific words for the feelings that arise: relief, euphoria, release. Of those, relief seems the best way to describe the resolution of not-knowing. Relief comes at the end of a trajectory, a process of starts and stops, of creative lulls and time away. And yet, when finishing finally does occur, the relief is still a surprise, a feeling that is instinctive, total, beyond dispute. Here’s Smith again, on her own experience of finishing:
Who can find anything bad to say about the last day of a novel? It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word. The last time it happened to me, I uncorked a good Sancerre I’d been keeping and drank it standing up with the bottle in my hand, and then I lay down in my backyard on the paving stones and stayed there for a long time, crying. It was sunny, late autumn, and there were apples everywhere, overripe and stinky.
It’s the kind of moment that deserves to be savored. The Sancerre straight from the bottle, the sun, the apples. You can almost see Smith’s tears of happiness graying the rock of the paving stones beneath her.
Let’s return, briefly, to Colm Tóibín’s words on finishing. In full, the statement runs: “It’s a question of finishing everything you start. It’s as simple as that.” Nothing is ever really simple, evidenced in the care Tóibín takes with his work routine. The chair is intentionally hard, the room silent, and there is no breakfast beforehand. “You create this system of rewards,” he explains. “If you do this, you can have that. Otherwise you’d never get any work done.”
Tóibín’s routine suggests he performs better under conditions of some privation. At its heart, finishing relies on finding a way to trick oneself, and the brain, into continuing. It might be as simple as putting off breakfast until the chapter’s been written. Where that final stage is concerned, the writer’s mindset, as King and Chabon attest, is of paramount importance. Developing a tolerance for uncertainty and taking confidence from past efforts is as necessary to sustained engagement as Tóibín’s hard chair.
Finishing, then, depends as much on confidence and pragmatics as it does on narrative solutions. You find ways to suspend doubt and get the job done. That confidence, in fact, may be as important as any skill of revision. Confidence, and a track record, reminds the writer to remain engaged, to stay attentive to the text. And rather than venture outside the work for advice, she can draw on experience to remind her that the text is where the solutions will be found. Finishing, you could say, begets finishing.
Encouraging as that notion may be, the struggle to finish persists. This essay, for example, proved as difficult to finish as any in the drop-down menu. I’ve forgotten the source of its original idea, but I recall wondering about the connection between the emotion of joy and the act of finishing. From there began the searching and gathering until the material found its shape, and over time, the final questions emerged. Though in that respect, this essay, too, underwent its uncertain state of suspension.
“I think it’s awfully dangerous to give general advice,” T.S. Eliot said, and yet general advice seems to be just the sort I am dispensing. Still, there are certain generalities that hold true, chief among them that to solve those final problems, the writer must outwit her shortcomings. Toward this end she has a hard chair, tales like that of the Sancerre and rotten apples, and her habits of mind. These, and a draft she hopes will become something more, are really all she has.
Lauren Alwan is an essayist and fiction writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Rumpus, The Millions, Zyzzyva, StoryQuarterly, the Alaska Quarterly Review, The Sycamore Review, and elsewhere. She is a staff contributor at LitStack, a literary news and reviews site, and a prose editor at the museum of americana, an online literary review. Follow her at @lauren_alwan.