The Finish Line
March 28, 2011
I’ve thought, often, of what it takes for a writer to finish a project, for a writer to get to the finish line, and I’ll tell you why. Not counting the time I spent teaching high school, I’ve taught in a university since 1977. During that time, I’ve taught countless numbers of students who wanted to become writers. And, recently, I’ve been teaching student writers who want to become writers in an MFA program that specializes in memoir.
Of the scores of students I’ve taught, most of them more gifted than I am, I can count the number of students who have completed books on the fingers of two hands. I’ve taught writers full of promise. Writers with glorious projects that I can still vividly remember. Writers intent on living a creative life. All these years later, nothing. Or not nothing. Something that hasn’t been finished. But something not finished is a drain on the psyche. Something not finished is like a sore on the bottom of a foot, like an ulcer on a finger, like a wound that isn’t healed. Everyone I know who has a book that they’re not working on to get it to the finish line feels this way. If we as writers spent as much time writing as we spent thinking about writing, or thinking about when we were going to get to the writing, or wondering about whether the writing was worth writing, we’d have a shelf of books that we’ve finished.
What happened to them? What stopped them from finishing?
Tillie Olsen addressed that issue in her book Silences. She spoke of the forces in the culture that conspire against living the creative life. The censure. The self-censure. The time devoted to raising families. The time it takes to make enough money to live a dignified life. And yes, everything Tillie Olsen said is true. But I’ve seen enough people who’ve lived creative lives who had absolutely everything conspiring against them to question Tillie Olsen’s premise.
Take one of my students. A man with AIDS before modern medications became available. He was very sick. But he was determined to finish a very long piece of writing before he died.
One day, he sat in my office talking about ideas for his project. He had two. I said to him, inconsiderately, “Why don’t you take some time to figure out what you really want to write about.” “I don’t have the time,” he said. And he was right. He was dead within a few years of my knowing him. But feeling well or feeling ill, he got to the page every day, even if he had to prop himself up in bed. Even, one time, when he had to hold his wrist to help his hand write the words. He finished his project and published it under the most adverse circumstances.
What did it take for him to get to the finish line? A sense of urgency, surely. A knowledge that he didn’t have forever. A belief that his experience could help someone else. And something far simpler. Constant work.
So, what is it then that can help us get to the finish line? And though I’ve been asked this scores of times, I confess to not having an answer. All I have are some random thoughts.
Random thought number one. People think they have all the time in the world, that they can get to something, eventually, even though they’re not doing it now. And so we put off and put off and put off what’s important to us thinking that some day in the future we’ll do it. Think of how people act who know they don’t have all the time in the world. Think of my former student. They act on their ideals instead of talking about them. The truth is we don’t have all the time in the world. We might have the rest of today. We might not necessarily have tomorrow. (Sobering exercise: figure out how many writing days you have left if you live to, say, 85 years old. Far fewer than you think.)
Random thought number two. People always talk about the fact that a fear of failure inhibits people from finishing their books. People are afraid the finished product will fail. I don’t believe that. I think that people don’t finish they’re books so that they can feel like failures because they haven’t finished their books. These are harsh words, and they’re meant to be. I’ve spoken, often, about how, as writers, we often use our work to beat ourselves up and that we have to be very careful that we don’t do this. One of the quintessential ways we beat ourselves up with our work is to not do our work. Want to feel like a failure? Don’t get to the desk. Don’t work at your pages. Don’t pick up a work in progress that you put down last week, last month, last year. So, no, to me, it’s not a fear of failure that keeps us from getting to the finish line. It’s our need to prove to ourselves that we are, in fact, failures. Instead of letting the world beat up on us, we’ve gotten real good at doing it ourselves. How to get around that? Do your work. Learn to live with how good it feels. Talk to someone about how hard it is to feel good, to feel competent, to feel efficacious.
Random thought number three. People tell me they don’t have time to write. I met, recently, with a writer who spent an hour and a half telling me that he didn’t have time to write. This writer was the friend of a friend and usually I don’t do this kind of thing, but my friend had done me a big favor and I wanted to repay it and she told me about this writer who needed my help. So I met with him. And after an hour and a half, I turned to him and said the obvious: that he would have been better off at his desk than talking to me. That what he wanted from me was a magic formula to help him finish his book. But that in fact there was no magic formula, and that if he had time to see me, he had time to write. When people tell me they have no time to write, if I’m being polite, I nod my head, tell them I know it’s hard. If I’m not, I say, “You have time to write; it’s just that you’ve chosen to do other things instead.” That usually stops the conversation. But it’s true. Anytime I hear me telling myself I don’t have time to write, I force myself to write down everything I did in the course of a day. And I learn that, yes, of course, I had time to write. I just chose not to. I chose to write a long email; I chose to have a long telephone conversation; I chose to look at a stupid movie (I’m not talking good movie here); I chose to reread a book to teach that I’d reread the week before to become even more prepared than I was.
Rather than teaching students the craft of writing, I sometimes think I should be teaching students and writers the craft of sitting at the desk, the craft of working daily (or five days a week), the craft of doing the work regardless. Then again, this is not something that can be taught. Because you can’t force a person into a chair; you can’t force them to work. This, they have to do themselves. And this, many find it hard to do.
I went, yesterday, to a promotion test for karate. My daughter-in-law Lynn got her black belt. To get it, she had to train for years. Then train intensively for months. Then train even more intensively for three days. The test was grueling. After a day of classes, there was an hour of testing. Punch after punch after punch. Kata. Kicks. The Chief Instructors sitting at the front watching your every move. I thought of the stamina that it took Lynn – and all the others – to get their black belts. None does karate for a living. All do it after long days at work when others of us are relaxing in front of the TV. It taught me something about what it takes to get to the finish line. And the answer isn’t talent.