Whenever I finish a project, I feel empty. It’s not a scooped out feeling, it’s more of a “I’m not here” feeling. It’s like existing in a sensory deprivation tank. Finishing the last draft of my novel after 8 months of work was similar. When I was done, there was no fanfare or feeling of elation; instead, it was like I had been editing someone else’s pages, not my own, like the pride belonged to someone else. Why is it so difficult for me to feel proud of anything I write? Why does it feel like this draft is only tangentially attached to me instead of an actual piece of my spirit? Is this me rejecting my child? Am I a bad mother? Or have I experienced enough rejection and lackluster responses that I don’t want to run the risk of growing emotionally attached to something that is so…me?
Having gone through this experience a few times now, I know that finishing a major project makes me crash; so, I tried hard to pump myself up this time, to keep my energy high. I charged out of my room with battle worn pages (seriously, those bad boys are covered in coffee, tears, and literal scorch marks) in hand and was met with a hug, a bottle of French gin, and the dreaded question: “What happens next?”
It’s difficult to be enthused when your moment of abject rawness is met with this line of inquiry. Would you ask a newly minted mother what her plans were moments after delivery? I want to be with my child, I want to share this news with you. But how can you convey the significance of delivery when all anyone has seen you do for the last 32 weeks is stare at your computer or scribble on some very sad looking pages? And what do I expect from everyone, really? Well, if we’re being honest, I want everyone to make a fuss for my finishing my book, because maybe that will help me feel something for the process.
Even now I feel myself rolling into a depressive dip. It doesn’t seem fair that despite not feeling an actual emotional attachment to my work that my body should feel its absence.
When I started what would become Sentinel in 2005, it was an amorphous narrative blob that was sort of about regency England and sort of about the power of friendship. And then it was sort of about secrets and a little about France because I was 14 and obsessed with Marie Antoinette. And then I graduated college and it became something else.
When I decided to make the third draft my master’s thesis, it was less about having a conveniently complete draft and more about wanting to be more serious about a story that had been rattling around my brain for, at that point, nearly a decade. I was proud of it for its length, not its contents. It took Dan (my advisor) all of 5 minutes to tell me that he wasn’t going to read 500 pages and to half the damn thing. In hindsight, fair.
We gutted it.
And I mean that. If the book was a house, then we ripped out the drywall, the tile, the plumbing; we took that baby down to the studs. Dan was ruthless, which meant that I needed to be, too. I cut and cut and cut and cut until what was left was a new thing completely.
In the end, I am grateful because we had to have several very serious conversations about structure. I read a lot of books by better writers and many a screenplay to teach me about tension and driving force. Eventually, I got to the essence of what this story actually is: An alternative history of the French Revolution with a heavy feminist slant. But, y’know, fun.
While restructuring had been necessary, it meant that the soul was gone, because houses need tile and wallpaper and furniture to be a home. This last draft has been all about soul and making plot connections and figuring out how to make myself cry on purpose. Are there pockets that need attention? Absolutely. But I’m leaving that part up to my readers.
Sharing a major writing project is one of the most intimate things a writer can do. Maybe I’m only speaking for myself, but if a fiction writer sends you poetry when you ask to read their work, they don’t trust you yet. Not to sound melodramatic, but to share a novel is to share a piece of your actual soul. My selecting three readers I trust enough to both read my work and give me their honest feedback is a whole ass act of vulnerability and trust. Because you don’t want people to hurt your feelings by telling you the truth, but you also crave their honesty so you can grow as a writer. I get why so many famous authors had drinking problems.
Writing is something I do, have always done, but I have only recently started to actually call myself a writer. For most of my life, when people asked me what I did for a living, I would preface it with “Oh, I’m a student/server/writing facilitator/administrative assistant/whatever” before hinting at the fact that I, perhaps, dabbled in the written word. Now though, I’ve begun to tell them right off the bat, “I’m a writer.” My novel hasn’t been published, but there are poems and short stories out there attached to my name. I am writer.
More than that external validation of my work, I’ve written a few thousand pages in my lifetime. And though by no means a master, I’ve put in my 10,000 hours. I carry my story and my notebook with me everywhere I go. I talk to my characters when I walk to work (I am thankful for Bluetooth earbud coverage to make me look sane). I make elaborate playlists to put me in the right mood for work (please, Spotify, sponsor me). I read books about French hairdressers in the late 18th century. I gobble up Wikipedia pages and weird factoids to color minor characters. I obsess.
Writing is second nature, so why is it so hard for me to claim it as a part of my identity?
At a community dinner I went to recently, I had the chance to tell strangers about this new proclamation. It was the first time I’d recognized what I had been doing for the last few months: ruthlessly molding my work yet again because I believe that it will be published one day soon. I publicly claimed my artistry. The response from the table was overwhelmingly positive. All of these people leaning in and listening to me explain what my project is, nodding their heads and asking follow-up questions. It made me feel seen. For a moment, I felt a little proud.
But I know should be proud, so here it is:
On December 4, 2019, I finished the sixth draft of my novel Sentinel a day before my set deadline. It is 420 pages and ~125k words long. It is an alternative history about the French Revolution, but it is mostly about a young girl grappling with the murder of her guardians as the secrets they kept are let loose, catalysing something that will change both her and the very history of France. It’s the best it’s ever been. It’s a big deal.