One of my new favorite authors–Susanna Clarke of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell fame–confesses that she first sat down and started writing after re-reading the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and thinking to herself…I could do that.
It took her about ten years to do it, but she did.
My story is somewhat similar. In my case, I first sat down and started writing after I saw Lord of the Rings in theatres in 2001. I didn’t think “I could do that” so much as, “What if I tried to do that?” And it took me fifteen years to really answer that question.
But I did.
I wrote the final line to my novel just last week.
I’m not sure how Clarke felt when she finished her book, but unless she also cried, threw an impromptu one-person dance party, demanded congratulatory hugs from her complaisant brother, and then power-walked through a forest, high-fiving saplings and ferns, our stories probably diverge a bit…
I mean, I was truly frenetic. The celebration I felt was visceral and real and nearly tactile, like if I could just push my hands hard enough in my chest I would touch my story instead of my heart.
It’s hard to put into words.
But if I had to give it a go, I would say that I was feeling something that was one part joy, one part pride, and one part relief.
The joy came from the sheer act of writing. It has been a very long time since I sat down and wrote something that was entirely mine–not for a conference, for a submission, for a class. And while I do plan on seeing this book through to publication of some kind or another, right now, it’s just for me. That means the whole time I was writing to the finish line–120,378 words between October of 2015 and January of 2016–I was writing for me. I learned to live in Atlantis and Gilded Age Chicago and talk to my characters without feeling guilty about it, or feeling like I had to hide my work. That’s joyful.
The pride came to me from my characters. I am one of those writers who invents a person and then releases them into the world I’ve built, watching to see what they’ll do as if viewing them from a stage. I really don’t interfere much, to be honest. I sort of give them a loose outline and then let them improvise, taking notes as they do and solving problems, or setting limitations, that help them move and make decisions. Consequently, they don’t really pay much attention to me, beyond the occasional bout of impatience…
So, when I wrote the last sentence, I was shocked to see them not only acknowledge me, but actually smile in my direction. It was electric, to have them notice me. And I felt like I had earned the attention, realizing for the first time that I did help them and I am equal to the task of directing them. I was proud of myself, and they were proud of me.
The relief came from finishing the project. Fifteen years is a long time to spend cultivating a story. There were a lot of stops and starts and restarts and problems and tatters of writing in the backs of notebooks while I waited for class to start. I’ve collected countless designs, maps, lists, plans, plots, charts, running the gamut from my original medieval castle concept to the final Gilded Age and Atlantian world. And the story has grown with me since I was fifteen years old, shifting and changing as I’ve shifted and changed. Putting down my final words on the 286th page of a story that old and complex was–at the risk of sounding dramatic–life-altering. Or, rather, I could see that the story had altered me over the years, and the arrival at the end was a rush of bittersweet relief and the opening of a time for reflection.
That’s about as best as I can explain it.
I know that there are countless edits, beta-readers, and publishing trials ahead, but for now, I’m just going to enjoy this floating, fleeting moment where I finished writing a book that I love. To pieces.
And, as per the advice of Neil Gaiman, whose advice and NaNoWriMo pep talk provided inspiration whenever I felt myself lagging or doubting…
…I’m going to keep writing.