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Finish It?

November 9, 2010

"Finish it? Why would I want to finish it?"

Will all the readers of these words who are not authors please stand up? Be honest: Is there one person hereabouts who applies finger to key, or pen/pencil to paper, without some faint hope that an e-mail or letter to a friend, or the grocery list, or part of your diary, or your notes of things to do will blossom into something literary? Publishable? A crash-bang, surefire entry to fame, happiness, and riches?

Don’t we all want to have written “The Great American Novel”? Or a sociological study on the effect iPods have on the birth rate? Surely you have dreamed of creating a love story that causes top Broadway producers to rush to your door or your Web site, begging you for stage and screen rights.

Ah, but there is so much to choose from. Would a spy novel, crawling with nerve-jangling plot complexities and kinky psychological twists interest you? Or are you haunted by the plot of a gothic thriller, set in the mansion of a darkly dysfunctional family in storm-swept Boca Raton?

Perhaps your project should be a fun, festive, Julia Child-class cookbook, a potboiler of the kitchen, delighting cooks, chefs, and gourmands the world over with wonderful new recipes.

Here’s another idea: a sensational political exposé that explodes on network news programs and nearly lands you in jail, but instead assures you appearances on talk shows and a week or two on “Dancing with the Stars”?

And who among you hasn’t had at least one idea sure to become a Caldecott-winning children’s book, making you the new Dr. Seuss, speaking to adoring mobs of crazed children and parents everywhere?

Since the coming of age of the computer, everyone but everyone is furiously writing something. I rarely meet anyone who doesn’t have an unfinished manuscript in a drawer, or an idea for a project sure to make us both billions if I will just take their concept (which took them at least 15 seconds to come up with) and devote the rest of my career and life to shaping it into something sure to succeed.

We watch the tiny handful of successful authors being interviewed on TV. They sprawl confidently on a couch, or drape themselves over a chair, their hair fashionably falling into their faces, happily chatting about how their latest book “just wrote itself.”

Wrote itself? Bells ring. Maybe writing is not so difficult after all. We’ve all had things happen in our lives that are perfect for a book. Wild, crazy, delightful moments, howling to be read. Isn’t it just a question of getting it down?

The hook is set. The idea of writing something hangs like a small, pregnant cloud over us, day and night. We go through a number of false starts, and finally begin. “Hey, this is good stuff,” our muse (or our mother) assures us, having read the three sentences we have already managed to put down. We are on the way.

Long ago, a friend of mine originally from a small town in Ohio was seeking an easy major in college. He decided journalism would be preferable to nuclear physics or premed. As part of the curriculum, he was permitted to play student reporter, and had the chance to interview Strother Martin, an irascible character actor Paul Newman often used in his pictures for comic relief.

The outlandish Mr. Martin had an unbelievable Southern accent, and rambled so it was difficult to make sense of what he was saying, sometimes shooting tobacco juice at wastebaskets or other nearby receptacles. His whiny drawl could make the most inane remark a work of art.  He played the part of the prison warden in the movie Cool Hand Luke.

My friend got a passing grade on his report, which convinced him he was destined to become the J.D. Salinger of his generation. He decided he would write the autobiographical novel of the century, one that would sweep him up among the stars of the literati, or, more important, make him a ton of money.

Time passed. We had lunch every week or so, and at each meeting he assured me he was making progress on the novel. The weeks turned into decades.  He was forever starting over “with an even better slant on it.” Once he told me had had written 700,000 words and was thinking of breaking it into a trilogy. Later, he claimed he had pitched the 700,000 words and was now working on a much higher level. He would never let me read any of it, but would describe small scenes for me. Like Strother Martin, my friend’s delivery was far more interesting than the material. When he talked, his arms would wildly flail the air, and gasping with laughter at his own material, he would watch me, hawk-like, to be certain he had my undivided attention. If I broke eye contact, even for a second, he would slump despondently down over his club sandwich, waiting for me to refocus on him. Then off we would go again.

More time passed. We were both beginning to go gray, but the occasional lunches and his supposed work on his novel continued. I begged him to submit, or to let someone read it, to get some feedback. He was forever close to doing this, but never quite ready.

A gifted salesman, over the years he built a career in life insurance, which funded the writing and his part of the lunches with me. He hired designers and an illustrator to work up a cover, and loaded the manuscript with copyright-free spot art. He changed the title and the typeface of the text again and again, sure that some final touch he gave it would be the magic formula assuring publication and boundless success.

I finally realized that the process of writing was an end unto itself for him; that after all these years, he had no intention of finishing and submitting. He enjoyed writing, and rewriting, or at least he convinced me that was what was going on. But far more than writing, he loved talking about his writing. His great joy was just being in the process of doing a book.

Published or not, isn’t he a writer? Sort of? And – if that is enough to satisfy him, so be it. There is nothing wrong with process. It moves us along the path. It gives us purpose. It keeps us busy.

As the Presbyterians say: “The journey is our home.”


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