A Sweet Yet Sad Farewell

by Wendy Hornsby

The deadline approached, and the book wasn’t quite finished.   I had made steady progress through the summer and was in sight of typing The End, until the new college semester began – long days, big classes, papers to grade, office hours to keep, lectures to prepare.  I miscalculated my stores of both time and energy.   When I knew I wouldn’t make D-Day, my editor at Perseverance Press, Meredith Phillips, gave me a two-week extension.    

Writing the last chapters of a book always feels to me something like riding rapids toward a great cascading waterfall and then, by grasping together all the threads of the story, landing safely instead of going over in a freefall.   It would be lovely to make that trip in one long uninterrupted run, but the reality is that life hits the pause button at regular intervals, interrupting the flow, as it were.  

Every writer who has a day job juggles work, family, writing.  We can’t drop any of those balls, but we can from time to time elevate the priority of one or the other.   With finishing the book now my top priority, my husband Paul, my head cheerleader, took on all of the household chores, freeing me when I was at home to focus on the book.

By five every morning I was ensconced in front of my computer, polishing and fixing what had been written the day before and then moving forward with new pages, getting in a few hours of work before my first class of the day.  After school, changed into favorite sweats, fueled by Diet Coke, it was back to the computer to work until Paul rang the dinner gong, maybe four hours later. 

After a glass of wine – okay, two – a lovely meal, some Rick Steves and John Stewart on DVR, followed by a discussion of Paul’s notes on the day’s pages – he is always my first and best reader – we usually called the day finished, though sometimes I spent another hour or two in front of the computer to work through a problem.

Soon that daily drill became a routine.  Even a weekend trip toSt. Louis for Bouchercon didn’t interrupt the flow.  Indeed, what better way to spend time waiting at a departure gate or buckled into an airplane seat than working on the adventures of a gaggle of fictional characters?   And how lovely it was to see the sun rise over the Mississippi every morning.

The book, at last, was mailed.  I was still upright and in my office working by five every morning.   Not to write, but to finish marking a set of essays that my students were eager for.  

By midweek, the essays had been returned.  So, why was I still up before dawn and in my office in front of the computer?   I had nothing so pressing that I couldn’t sleep for another hour then linger over the paper, maybe do the Sudoku.  Eat breakfast facing Paul instead of a monitor.  But I couldn’t.  I felt that there was something urgent to be done.  Why was I still feeling pressure?

Letdown.  Post-book letdown.  

It happens every time.  The elation of finishing the book is coupled with the despair of leaving an adventure and its fictional people behind.  Writing is a pleasure for me.  By the time the book is finished, I have spent months with a cast of made-up characters, hearing them talk – not actually, but actually literally – sending them into action, feeling their pain, racing them toward a conclusion and a deadline, and then…?  They are in the mail.  Gone.  I miss them.  I miss telling their story.

Nineteenth century satirist and cartoonist Honoré Daumier referred to the “feu de composition”, the fire of composition.  Trust me, it takes a while to put out the fire once stoked.

So, while I could sleep in, what had been a routine became a habit.  This historical novel that I’ve had to put aside to finish the mystery won’t write itself.   There is another set of fictional characters waiting for a voice.  And an invitation to submit a short story. 

And the dawn through my office window is so lovely.

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14 Responses

  1. This rings bells. When I finish a book, I’m elated for about half an hour. Then I’m sure it’s dreck and I’ll never write anything again, not even a postcard. The reaction lasts until the voices start again (woo woo), which can be weeks and months…

    Sheila

  2. I can relate to your feelings, Wendy, at the book’s end. I remember standing on an empty stage afer the close of a play I’ve acted in or directed–with the same feeling of emptiness. And then elation again when I have the published book in my hands. And then the let down as no one seems to know it’s out there but myself… Until slowly, the world turns and someone discovers it… And as you say so eloquently, “until the voices start again.” And they do!

  3. A lovely essay, Wendy. I resonate with almost all of it, especially the challenges of integrating the writing of book with the rest of your life. And then finishing a book, which is like saying farewell to good friends. Series characters will return but some of the others you may never see again, after they’ve been a major part of your life. The one part I can’t relate to, although I admire you for it, is getting started each morning at 5 am. 🙂

    • Peggy, With some effort, I think I can get over getting up by five. But not yet. The copy-edited manuscript arrived on my porch Friday, so I’m back in the book, working on flubs and other problems, and hanging out with all those characters again. W

  4. This is inspiring, Wendy! Keep writing AND blogging!

  5. Wendy, I will probably never write a book; however, I enjoy reading and always hate for the book to end. I feel as though I am leaving my ‘friends’ to never meet again. Similar feelings to you leaving your characters.
    Enjoy your books–keep them coming.
    Mary Kuhn

    • Hi Mary, I feel the same way when I read a great book. Do you ever find yourself slowing down when you get the last pages, to make the story last longer? Or, rereading parts of the book? W

  6. Hi Wendy,

    So when does the new book make its debut? I’m excited to read it.

    Ina

  7. As Wendy’s editor, I’m the one responsible for the edited manuscript arriving back on her porch ;-). By the time she’s dealt with that, then later the proofs, she may feel that the characters annoyingly keep returning like guests who just won’t leave b/c they forgot something or had to say one more thing or want to say good-bye again….

    • You’re right, Meredith, the manuscript does feel like a visitor right now. Instead of dealing with linens and meals, it’s misplaced hypens and commas and scenes that need fixing; not much time to hang with the characters. W

  8. Wendy, I am SO happy for you. I’ve just come through it myself, finishing my first late book ever about two hours ago, so your blog was the perfect place for me to turn.

    Capote said, “Finishing a book feels like you just took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” At this stage, though, what I feel is an enormous elation, the way Atlas might have felt if someone had come along and said, “Hey, let me hold that for a minute.”

    We should write a collaborative blog, maybe in alternating voice, about finishing, either for here or for my site,

    Congratulations!!

    • Congratulations, Tim! I want to hear all about the new book. Capote – hmmm – shooting the child? Finishing the book feels more to me like sending a kid off to college on the far side of the continent; you know they’re coming back, but, oh, how you miss them. Yes, let’s collaborate. W

  9. Wendy, I was completely captivated (as you are with everything I do and say) with your blog entry above particularly the part of having to say goodbye to your made-up friends ( I mean that in the most positive way). I was quite taken with your description of letting them go. It must be like some kind of grief experience. On a personal note, when I feel it is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends, it is always difficult. The doctors say it is for the best, though. They somehow become too big a part of my daily interactions to the exclusion of my wife and real friends. Most of them (except for Mr. BZ) like me so much it is hard to say goodbye. Say hello to Paul for me.

    Love, your favorite person and cousin, Frazer

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