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.



12 Responses to “The Finish Line”

  1. Darcy Says:

    Greetings, Louise,

    Thanks for today’s post. I’m a former devotee of the 99% finished law. I would write an entire novel, send it or show it to one to six “authorities” chosen at random from, say, Writer’s Market, and then give up. I’ve heard others in my writing support group report similar behavior. YOU, Miss Louise, changed my life with a post earlier in the life of this blog. I keep that post on my desktop to re-read regularly. You said that people fail to finish because of the immense anxiety generated that others will now see our private world/work. If we start on something new, we get to avoid that anxiety while still writing. My message to writers is “send it out” and then keep sending it out. I heard that it takes 100 submissions to get one acceptance. Many famous writers report numbers like that. Since I read your ‘anxiety’ post, I kept sending, and started publishing again, and each acceptance, however small, is like a burst of adrenaline and then leads to others. Hint: I now ignore the negatives or form letters and concentrate on the “we’d like to see more of your work,” making sure they do see more. Thanks again.

  2. Danielle Says:

    I have a few projects, one that I started in high school, that sits in the stored files of my computer. I started off strong then it was as if I ran out of steam. I couldn’t see where the story would go, or rather I did but I didn’t know how I would get there. Now, though, I understand the sense of urgency. I’m well aware I may not have tomorrow, but instead of helping me, that urgency sort of blocks me. I suppose it’s all the anxiety that stems from it and the pressure I put on myself. I’m not afraid of failure. I’m just afraid of not having enough time to really see it blossom.

  3. Annie Says:

    On the subject of time, never underestimate what can be done in fifteen or twenty minutes. Since I’ve been sick I have time galore, but little energy or concentration. Still, with two or three fifteen minute periods a day, I’ve gotten through two plus drafts of my memoir.

  4. ajuele Says:

    Sometimes, especially because I am writing for school, I mistakenly think that the finish line is the due date of an assignment. Because my projects are growing bigger though, I’m finding the finish line is further away – the completion of my degree and the thesis that will go hand in hand with it is one of those finish lines. In my case, I find changing perspectives useful in keeping up my daily writing practice. Some days, I focus on completing even half a page of editing or writing new material. Other days, I may tackle the project as a whole and rework something like the structure, or change the tenses for a certain passage. Each time I am focusing on only the day’s work. But at the end of a working day, I always take a step back, and think about where how that days’ work moved me closer to the finish line. And sure, I have a day job, and other responsibilities, but even revising one word is a step towards that goal of completing a project. But keeping my work close to me is the only way I can accomplish writing every single day. The change in perspective, from the goal, to the step you are taking, and back to the finish line, helps too.

  5. Marianne Says:

    I am just at the begining stages, far from completing my first memoir, but getting closer. Sometimes I feel possessed, I cannot wait to get home and write about something that occurred to me during the day. I write every day, even if its only a few paragraph.Through the process of memoir writing I am learning things about myself that I never paid attention to before.
    Being published is a dream I hope to achieve. I know it could take years but it is worth the wait. I sometimes lay in bed and grab my notebook, writing random thoughts. This have proven to be my best practice.

  6. Julie Raynor Says:

    Wise, wise words.

  7. Vic Venom Says:

    Determination, I wish I had more of it. I can’t count the number of incomplete files I have on my computer. 10-12 page stories that begin well, and then sort of taper off and ground to a halt. A few of them end abruptly, often without me finishing the sentence. Re-reading these days, months or years later I scratch my head trying to figure out were I was going with this.

    Would I like to be published? Let me flip a coin and get back to you, would I like to finish something I’m proud of? Absolutely.

  8. Jennifer Says:

    “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.”

    So, true. School forces me to get the work done. I have a terrifying fear that once I do graduate that I will go back to my old habits. I hope that I can put in the hours and do the work needed every day to get my work where I want it to be.

    Thank you for another invaluable post.

  9. Shayla D. Cook Says:

    Often times we find ourselves wrapped around the idea of what we can not do. A lot of times there is a lack of discipline when the writer is trying to finish their literary work. The idea is to write, and make mistakes. Within those mistakes that is where the lesson is revealed. These mistakes help the author complete their piece. I have been doing some writing, and trying to learn from my mistakes as well as the mistakes of my peers. Even though I view memoir writing as bothersome, I still respect how powerful it is based on trial and error.

    Thank You Louise.

  10. Gi'Ana Walker Says:

    I am definitely guilty of the “no time” excuse. I think your friend and your daughter in law had the right idea. Staying focused and having the discipline as well as determination to complete the task is all that is needed. I had trouble finishing a piece earlier this semester but after I sat down and really went over every line again I was able to find places to expand and subjects to cut out. Part of finishing is making the time to write. It all depends on how important the project is to you.

  11. Lisa Roth-Gulvin Says:

    This is very true. Deep down we all know that there is time for writing. We know this becasue we have all at some point “made time for “a girls night out” or a shopping trip or someother thing that requires relinqishing time with our families. We do it becasue we need it. I write becasue I need it – I have learned to make the time.

  12. Tamara Gonzalez Says:

    After an hour of sitting at my desk staring at my unfinished memoir and looking for any excuse to not begin to work on it i stumble upon this post. This is all very true that you’ve stated, it is not talent that helps you finish anything in life, it is persistence and hardwork. I also believe that fear of not knowing what direction your going in can hinder a project because this is what is happening to me right now. It’s a long road from the beginning of a project to the finish line but with each step I am learning something not only about my work, but about myself. That is the greatest prize in the work you put in daily. I’ve warmed my fingers up responding to this post, I think i’ll begin my work now.

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