On New Year’s Day I wrote in my diary that I was thinking about endings, and in particular how to finish my novel. It’s something I’ve put on my list of resolutions for at least ten years now. To begin with I blamed lack of will power, time, a quiet place to work, a view, the right frame of mind . . . but I found that even when I did have all these things, I still didn’t finish it. What happened was that I would re-read, re-write, change my mind, add sections, delete sections, and as a consequence, the ending grew ever more elusive.
Over the years I’ve discovered I have a problem with finishing things. I used to blame my lack of persistence but now I think that it’s because finishing things is hard. Finishing means loss, and loss means grieving. Society urges us to move on, come to terms, learn from our mistakes, seek closure, but the process is never finished – until we are. As we grow older the whole idea of finishing becomes more real, and therefore, perhaps, more terrifying.
But then there’s this idea of what we leave behind. Who wants to leave an unfinished novel? No one would read it. Of course they probably wouldn’t read a finished one either, but surely you’d feel better on your death bed, knowing the loose ends were all tied up, and the proof reading done?
When I started writing this particular novel, finishing it seemed straightforward. In those days I had not lost a marriage, a career, a partner, a parent. I didn’t know what grief was, or failure. I thought the problem was the beginning. I remember asking my MA tutor how and where to start. She gave me some excellent advice: decide where you think the story starts, and have the confidence to stick with your plan and get to the end. Why didn’t I listen to her? I set off not knowing where I was going. I’d heard all those stories about writers who don’t want to know where their characters are going, that sounded more fun. And I forgot about my reader, and readers really like staying up all night to find out what happens in the end, don’t they?
The idea of the reader. Perhaps this is the crux of the problem. After all, if you finish your novel there will be readers (if you’re lucky) and you will be judged. However much you tell yourself it’s not you, it’s the book, you will feel it is you. The longer you’ve spent writing it, the more invested you will be, because the chances are you’ve poured in more and more of your life, and if you’re told it’s rubbish, that would mean you’re rubbish, and that’s hard. Why put yourself in this situation? Far easier to keep on tweaking. Forever.
There are of course, other reasons – like ignorance. I’ve had to learn about how to write a novel. Just because you can read one doesn’t mean you can write one, unless you are very lucky indeed. I even made it more difficult for myself, by including three story lines, tight plotting, complex time schemes, multiple voices, all the things I warn students about.
On the other hand it has become part of me, like those barnacles that grow on whales. I’ve poured into it my difficult times, my Jungian shadows, and zombie childhood issues. It’s helped me survive. My inner therapist says you can give up on it, but I ignore her, because I am also afraid of failing, of change, and of having to start something new. Sometimes it is easier to cling on to what you know even if it is driving you mad.
Last night I dreamed I was swimming across a green weedy pool, unsure if I’d be able to reach the other side. I wasn’t in a panic this time, I accepted that I might not get there, but I knew I’d carry on swimming. In the dream there was the memory of that Vermont pond I swam across the day after my son’s wedding, and an echo of a Japanese Zen garden I’d seen on tv, covered in moss. So I’m going to finish this blog (yes!) not by saying I will finish the novel, but with that image of swimming on a summer’s day not worrying about getting to the other side. It is the swimming I enjoy, the journey not the destination. I’m going to try to enjoy this experience of not quite getting to the end, and see what happens next.
Hilary Jenkins is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Teesside University. Her particular areas of interest include writing and wellbeing, creative writing and distance learning, and why people write novels. She also writes poetry which she finds easier to finish. She lives in the middle of the North York Moors where she likes to walk and think about the next novel.