For me, trying to write a book doesn’t start to be challenging until I’m almost finished. 98% done. Nearly ready to hit save and send it off in an email to somebody else to review, enjoy, or try and sell.
But that last 2%, oh man. I can’t even face it.
I call it “baby bird” syndrome. I’m just not strong enough to push it out of the nest and let it fly on its own.
But perhaps, if I think more critically, it really comes down to a bit of a perfectionism streak. It shows up in a lot of my work outside of writing, too. The list of things that I am great at is long: coming up with ideas, making them happen, crafting stories and weaving threads together. But letting go? Count me out.
I heard a good quote about this. “Books are never truly finished — they are only abandoned”. I tried to figure out who said it but there are too many claims to the source.
Is this, perhaps, the way to let go? Accept that my books are never finished, but sent them out anyway?
I have a book coming out in the spring of next year with an excellent publisher. The fact that I finished that manuscript blows my mind. I think it’s because I wrote it so fast, and so steadily. There were no interruptions; I spent two months focused solely on this book. When there was nothing left to write, I sent it on to the publisher, and here we are.
My great magnum opus, however, is a little more complicated. It is a historical fiction novel (with a slight mythological twist), and based on a character that is very near and dear to my heart.
Her name is Camilla. I didn’t invent her, but I turned her into a character rather than a series of facts. She appears for a curiously disconnected section of Virgil’s Aeneid, a great Latin epic that I studied feverently in my undergraduate days.
I was curious about her from the first time I read that story. I was halfway through my undergraduate thesis paper about her, though, when a professor I was not particularly fond of really drove my enthusiasm home.
I heard that in the class where he taught the Aeneid, he skipped over Camilla’s chapter. It “wasn’t important to the story”.
I was livid! My whole undergraduate paper defended her poetic significance to the entire epic. I think I did a fine job, for a new academic.
However, my interest in Camilla and the fragments of her story that Virgil composed never faded. A few years later when I was chipping away at my masters thesis, I found myself needing a creative outlet. Quite desperately, in fact.
This is when I started writing Camilla’s story. Then, in a disconnected sort of creative process, it was fleshed out over the next six years.
Six years is a long time to write a story. It’s a long time to work on any one project. The story changed a lot. I changed a lot. And when it came to finishing the project, I had a large collection of roughly hewn puzzle pieces that needed to be stitched together into something resembling a clear story.
This was perhaps the greatest editing job of my entire career. It was far more painstaking than editing any graduate thesis, for I was much more invested in this artistic creation of mine. It took weeks of intense revision, much of which took place on paper. I do believe that a story reads differently on a page than on a screen, and that is what helped me turn Camilla’s story into a true novel.
And yet, here it sits in an innocent document on my desktop. It waits for me to click and reveal six years of work in a single scroll. And it’s long, too — but given that I was inspired by epics, I forgive myself for this one.
However. There is one scene which I can’t finish.
It’s not a particularly difficult one, either. I already wrote the harrowing climax of the story, and many other challenging passages beyond that. But I believe that the act of finishing, the act of letting go of this character and this story, is actually pretty frightening.
When the story is still under construction, it is in my control. I can make changes or kill off characters or make a scene more tender as I please. But once I complete it, I have lost my little universe. No longer will their story have threads for me to follow, or mysteries for me to discover. The moving pieces become stationary, and in my heart, I find that too sad to bear.
I suppose this is the writer’s dilemma. I will get over it, eventually.
Despite this fear of letting go, I have no problem urging others to do it themselves. Perhaps I am born to be an editor moreso than a writer. At least I can offer the authors that I work with some solidarity. I know how difficult it is to start, certainly. But I know how difficult it is to finish, too.
Camilla will enter the world sooner rather than later. Friends have already read her story in its incomplete form. I’m actually quite optimistic that she will do well and thrive in the hands of others.
But first, I must learn to let go.
A/N: Two days after writing this essay, I found the drive to finish writing this book. I think working through my block by writing this really helped!