The End of the Line(s): On Finishing a Book

“FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.” —From a tweet by @JoyceCarolOates

A fellow writer, Olivia Kate Cerrone, shared this while we were both working on books at Ragdale, an artist’s residency near Chicago. For many years, I wholeheartedly agreed with Oates, as I slowly slogged out chapters of a book whose shape or structure I did not know – because I did not know how to write a book. It was like laying down railroad track when you didn’t know where it was going, or how trains worked.

Then somehow, miraculously, and with the help of some excellent teachers and fellow writers, six years later, I thought I had a book. But as I heard from agents, publishers, and ultimately (and most importantly) myself that my book wasn’t ready, I entered purgatory: I began revision. And not the kind which involves moving commas around – I completely overhauled my book at least three times in the next three years. In one revision, inspired by a technique described by my friend and former teacher David Biespiel in Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces, I actually retyped the entire 300-page manuscript so that I had to reconsider every single word and whether it belonged in the new version. Most of the old words didn’t make it. Even then I was not done. My final revision (though I knew better by then to call it “final” at the time) was the most difficult, in which I wrote myself and my own family’s story far more deeply into a book about my time and travels with an Afghan American and Afghan family after 9/11.

Now, nearly nine years after I started, I am here at Ragdale, moving commas around, obsessively spell-checking my final (Final!) draft of the book, The Four Words for Home, which will be published by Aquarius Press / Willow Books in March 2014. For nearly decade, I have dreamt of this moment, of finally being done. Like Oates, I believed it would be like paradise.

It’s not. I’m terrified. There was security in constantly working on, and reworking, and reworking, something. Now, all those words and sentences and pages I had been rewriting and rethinking and moving around – they have to be finalized for posterity, never to be changed or tweaked again. I have reached the end of the line, and whether my painstakingly laid tracks will usher the train smoothly to its destination or will cause a disastrous derailment, the ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled and the engine is firing up.

Countless artists have likened completing a project to withdrawal or post-partum depression. I used to think that was because they feared the inspiration for the next book or work would not come, or that nothing could measure up to the just-finished one. But now I see it is also about reluctance to let go. The comfort of rewriting a sentence, of deleting a dead-weight chapter and adding a newer, more inspired one, and, yes, even of adding or subtracting a missing or misplaced comma, was about always feeling like a better version of my book was waiting in the wings. If I just did one more revision, just worked a little harder …

But just as I finished my final draft, I found another piece of writerly advice, Jane Vandenburgh’s brilliant redux of Cheryl Strayed’s equally brilliant talk on accepting imperfection as a writer.

“To write any book that matters you’ll need to own both your own most ridiculously lofty ambitions together with the sobering notion that you’re likely doomed to failure,” Vandenburgh writes, paraphrasing Strayed. “You will fail … because each of us is a broken and leaking all-too-human vessel, too weak and insignificant to be carrying such an important story.”

The important thing, Vanderburgh / Strayed concludes, is to be brave, and to allow yourself to not only exceed your perceived limitations, but also to fall short of your loftiest dreams of perfection or literary greatness.

So I now know that it takes equal amounts of courage, stubbornness, and foolhardiness to write the first draft of a book as it does to stop revising after the last. Those of us who are lucky, though, get to go on this journey more than once. Joyce Carol Oates has done so more than 40 times, at an enviable pace, and with great success. You’d think she’d have gotten over the “hell” part of the writing process by now.

But the truth is, I bet she relishes it. I know I do: The struggle, the days when you’re lucky if you get one good sentence after pulling out your hair and banging on your keyboard in frustration, and the breakthroughs, especially the ones that come unexpectedly in sleep, or the shower, or while doing laps in the pool. Because you spent the previous day pulling out your hair.

I’m thrilled, terrified, and relieved to be publishing my first book. But most of all, I’m already missing the writing process, and longing to be drafting the second.

This blog first appeared as Accepting Imperfection on Rough and Rede.

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