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The Finishing Line

An image of the 'end' button on a keyboard. Photo by csy302, CanvaPro.

It’s oh so quiet.

Whisperingly so.

I can hear the faint buzz of white noise in my ears but little else. No shuffling papers. No printer pouring. No satisfying salvos of fluent finger fire on keyboard. As Wallace Stevens wrote, “The house was quiet and the world was calm.”

But the world isn’t calm and the house is far too quiet. Quite the disquieting opposite.

This noiselessness is no secret; I know exactly why home is so disarmingly silent. There’s a critical gap, you see — a physical void. What once was is now no longer. I’m missing a part and feel like I’ve lost my wallet. No, worse than that; I feel like I’ve lost my way. I’d forgotten this was what it feels like, finishing a book. I’d forgotten the aimlessness and the wandering. I’d forgotten the lack of purpose. I’ve crossed the line but to what result? I should feel ecstatic but that sentiment has been very short-lived. Instead, I feel anxiously uncertain. I’ve done the final edits, the fudges and the finessing and now it is out in the world with readers and I have no control over it anymore. I’m at an impasse, a stalemate, in a vacuum. I have far too much spare time on my hands, like an empty-nester who no longer has a child to clear up after.

Encouraging emails from loyal friends and my mum are kindly meant but the sword of Damocles still hovers. I’m no longer able to judge. I’ve been living with those words and pages for almost two years and now it is done. Whatever am I going to do now?

I don’t finish things very often. I take heart from the fact that Joseph Heller and Donna Tartt both took around a decade to write their best work. I’m not sure that my latest manuscript could lay claim to be my best but it could be my funniest. In deference to Heller and Tartt, it’s not because I was crafting it more that it took me so long to write; I simply put it off because I know from experience that finishing isn’t fun.

In fact, I’d go as far to say that finishing is a bit of a problem. I wonder whether I have, subconsciously, deliberately delayed the final moment this time round. When you’re writing, you know what you’re doing. Day after day. There’s a fixed or semi-fixed routine. Periodically, people ask and you can say that you’re ‘working on something’. But once you’re not writing, what are you? Are you still a writer? Should you get straight on with the next thing? Are you, like most actors, ‘between jobs’? How do you explain your role and purpose as you wait to hear whether you’ve wasted two years of your all-too-short time on Earth?

The school holidays are coming up and I’ve put aside some time then to devote to the task of writing a synopsis and trying to compose a charmingly memorable email to agents. But when it comes to the ring-fenced day, strangely, I can’t be bothered. In fact, I can’t write. I’ve got no energy left to now actually sell the thing. I just want people to read it and laugh. I know it’s funny because the readers’ feedback has been positive and they are people not easily given to chuckling. Neither are they cyclists (the main activity in the book). To give myself a boost and some momentum to accomplishing the required synopsis, I review that readers’ feedback. ‘Like Bill Bryson’, says one. ‘Like Dinnerladies’, says another. I was aiming for neither but hey, I’ll take both. With both hands.

Obviously, I still put it all off — the pitch, the synopsis, the bio. Reductionism doesn’t suit. Days and days go by. When I first finished, the Mary-of-the-future was going to have all this done within two months but that time has already passed and the evenings are getting lighter and much much longer. I don’t want another equinox to come around and nothing to have been done but still, the days go by. I’m in creative atrophy, possibly too cowardly to summarise and send my work on its way. I don’t want to be pedlar and barterer, too. It’s completely alien to my nature. As part of my delaying strategy, I read blogs, advice wikis, more of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook than I have since the last time I did this and eventually, many weeks later, I sit and write and, after many hours, I click send.

After I’ve sent the first email, I feel slightly lightheaded. I take a deep breath and send a dozen more. There’s nothing to do now but wait. I don’t know what to do next – the time expands fatly around me in all directions – so I WhatsApp two friends who have been championing the manuscript from day one. They tell me to go and eat cake. So I do. In a café. Amaretto and white chocolate cheesecake. There are apricots in there too. To wash it down, I have coffee in a cup the colour of eau de nil. I take my time. I’ve sure got that right now.

After three straight days of cake, I decide to break free from the mental torpor; not straight away, of course. Over an obscenely large slice of chocolate-and-Guinness cake, I write a list of all the things I could do with my newfound spare time. It begins like this:

  • learn Mah Jong
train for a marathon
sign up for upholstery lessons
  • do a city break —Talinn sounds nice. Or Ljubljana?
  • learn to make a range of British puddings

It’s as I’m writing ‘visit more wetland centres’ I decide the prolonged sugar rush has done its damage and I really need some air.

One of the very unexpected and frankly alarming side effects of having finished and despatched the manuscript is an increase in domesticity. I finally sort out the back yard and spend an entire morning going through months of piled-up papers. I make numerous trips to the tip and list things to sell on eBay. Concerned neighbours ask whether I’m selling up. I meander through boxes of photographs and cull the out-of-date, the unwished-for and the unsentimental. Charity shops in town are the glad beneficiaries of a book filter and garment sift. What’s startlingly liberating is I don’t have a constant guilty feeling that I should be writing, that I ought to be looking at the manuscript. I can just go and do things, like go for a bike ride, sit in a café, wander aimlessly around town. This must be what time feels like.

A friend gives me a ‘rejection lucky dip bag’. It’s full of thoughtful gifts to get me through this period. Whenever I get a rejection, I am to pull something out of the bag. Bang on cue, the day after she gives it to me, I get my first rejection. Once the various emotional stages are gone through (wind out of sails, depressed inner tube, sadness, righteous indignation, self-questioning, phoenix-like renewal), I reach into the bag and pull out a ‘life in France’ magazine. Magazine France looks very tempting. Mind you, it looks very quiet there — I’ve got enough of that here.A few more weeks pass and still nothing. Not even a rejection arrives, noiselessly, in my inbox. Spooked by the silence, I check to make sure I actually sent the manuscript. I don’t need cymbals and drums; just a gentle pop would be confirmation enough.

And so I sit and wait. I’ve done the dishes, dusted the skirting, reorganised the kitchen cupboards, thrown away all mate-less socks. Nothing for it but to sit it out.

But it’s oh so quiet.

Numbingly so.

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