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What It’s Like to Finish a Novel

Finishing a book is one of the most befuddling experiences in life. I have just experienced it for the seventh time (five published and one unpublished books, plus this new one), and it is always the same. 

Regardless of my vows to keep my life balanced, by the end I have failed utterly, as always. I still exercised, but less, still had human contact, but less, still took care of business, but less. But even a minimum of an hour a day on each of these leaves a whole lot of hours every day to be obsessive, especially considering that the “get up and get back to your book” alarm in my head was going off around 5AM. 

In some ways it’s the same as the tail end of any long stretch of concerted mental effort, knowing you must be exhausted but being too wired to feel it. The exhaustion shows up in weird ways, like disorientation even in familiar surroundings. I walked into a plexiglass wall a few days back and still have the tender forehead to show for it, though the lump and bruise have faded. The other day I decided not to go on a new hike with a group because I would have to drive on a highway to get there, and I didn’t trust myself to pay adequate attention to the road.

The late Sharon Kay Penman, an author much admired by historical novelists, once said at a conference, “While you’re writing about the past, don’t forget to live in the present.”  She knew how hard that can be.  My characters are more concrete to me than my own body, more real to me than the people in my life. It is an extraordinary state to be in, and I am not complaining. It is a privilege to be able to go into another world. It’s the coming out that’s hard. 

I look around and wonder, “so, what do I do now?”  I have enough neglected business and errands to fill my days for a while. Every day I’ve been pushing forward on my calendar all the phone calls I should have already taken care of, the appointments and reservations I need to make or cancel because the ground is always shifting underfoot whether I’m paying attention or not.  it’s been so long since I pulled out the cleanser that the bathroom and kitchen are an embarrassment to myself.  The problem is, I don’t want to do any of it. I have been in this amazing place of my own creation and I don’t want to come back to boring things. 

Dealing with strangers is the hardest part. I have a few friends who have done a wonderful job of not letting me float off the planet, but I reach a point where I can’t shop for groceries because I would have to speak. The spell gets broken by every little mundanity, and I don’t want to do that.

In a way, this state is much like fresh grief, when being alive doesn’t seem real. I offer this only as a means by which you might glimpse this state, and hope you don’t read too much into the analogy. Maybe in a sense I am grieving the end of something big and important. I don’t deny that. But really, it’s more of the reverse. I have gained something huge—a completed book!  My life is bigger because it now has this in it. I will find my way back to a normal that doesn’t feel at all impoverished, but enriched. 

I know this befuddlement is brief and fleeting. Unlike grief, I will “get over it.” I’m going to fill this day with healthy goodness and maybe even make a few boring phone calls, solve a few nagging problems, and possibly get the toothpaste splatter out of my sink. 

Or maybe that can all wait. The sun is shining, and I’m meeting a friend this morning. The world is offering its welcome, and I am going to stop writing this and step out the front door, letting all my senses remember that I am still here.

What i did today The dahlias at Butchart Gardens were like a fireworks show just for me.

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