Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"Finished"

Yesterday I "finished" a draft of a new novel.

Finished? What does that mean—especially when I know from experience that I'm likely to do another three, four, five, maybe even fifteen drafts? And just what qualifies as a draft, anyway?

Was it Paul Valery who said, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned"? Trust me, the same can be said of a novel—or a play, or a painting, or an essay. At some point we've done all we can do; at least, we feel as if we've done all we can do. And at that point we have two choices: two walks away temporarily, or to walk away for good. But we must walk away.

All that's implied by the word "draft," therefore, is that it is something you will walk away from, but only temporarily. It exists merely to be returned to. It is neither finished nor abandoned, but exists in a sort of twilight state between these two phases. You might call it the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning. 

The last novel I wrote took me fifteen years. I don't mean fifteen years wall-to-wall (in that case, the "walls" would need to be padded); I mean fifteen years on and odd. Still, if I added all the hours and days together spent working on that novel during those years, I would not be surprised to discover that they would fill five to six years—with just barely enough time left over for meals and sleep.

Five to six years working full time to create a novel which, when it finally sold, earned me an advance of . . . well, I won't say exactly how much money I got. Suffice it to say that it's hardly enough to live on for a year. In fact, it's hardly enough to live on for half a year. And I don't mean in New York City; I mean somewhere like Cleveland, Ohio. Or maybe Somalia.

In few words I probably earned about .25¢ per hour. But hey—who's counting?

And yet I have to tell you that with each new revision of that work, I felt renewed: I felt as though I have been granted a new lease on life, a new chance to make good of something that I had already sacrificed so much time and effort on. This time (I said to myself at the onset of each revision), this time I'll get it right; this time my efforts will not be in vain. I shall be redeemed. 

Redemption—what does it mean? In the case of my novel, it means a contract that will pay me (once all advances are collected) 25¢ per hour plus expenses on a ten city reading tour. And the glory of seeing my words finally put to bed in print. Yes, that's the real payment: to see one's vision at last realized, one's words set to type on and printed good quality paper between well-designed covers. To be able to say to those who have witnessed your years of slogging struggle, "My book is published. It exists. It has its own life now. BUY IT!" And—most of all—to hold in one's hand the product of that struggle, all those years of effort and disappointment and tears and ages bent over a keyboard compacted into this small, dense object. A book! No longer trapped inside me as a series of worries and visions, but an independent entity, a thing with its own life. Yes, like having a child, sort of (I guess).

But for a writer one "child" is seldom enough. We are greedy that way. We want more and more progeny—as if the world isn't already overpopulated with books; as if there's weren't already ten thousands times as many books as there are those willing to read them. What, I ask you, do we need another one for? 

We don't. But some of us—like me—still need to write them.

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