On Finishing (Sort of) the Endless Novel

Dear readers, join me in the happy dance:


(*a good major revision of)

(**Book One of Two in the series)


Paraphrasing French author Paul Valéry, the poet W.H. Auden famously observed that “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” This quote sticks in my mind as I sort through my many feelings and questions about reaching this milestone in the writing process. Questions like: Do I have the right to say it’s “finished” when I know there will be more edits from my critique readers and my (as yet hypothetical) publisher? Can I celebrate publicly even though someone is sure to find imperfections in the manuscript? I keep expecting someone to spring out from behind a tree and taunt “Ha-ha!” like the bully Nelson in “The Simpsons”. How could you ever imagine this was good enough? Who do you think you are?

Rather than “abandoned”, I like the word “released”. This manuscript is ready to be given a little freedom to fend for itself, like my son going off to preschool next month. In both cases, the freedom is carefully bounded. A two-year-old by himself can’t choose trustworthy companions and roam the neighborhood with them. I have to select an environment that looks safe, stay involved, remain grounded in my own authority, and pray for the best. Similarly, I think that a fledgling manuscript needs to meet the world in stages, not all at once. I’m taking the advice that I give to aspiring authors all the time: choose only a few critique readers, selected for their sympathy to your style of work and their ability to give ego-free feedback, and remember that you are the ultimate authority on what feels right.

This is counterintuitive advice in a culture where we’re accustomed to ranking everything on the Internet. Much has already been written about how the Facebook “Like” button flattens and trivializes our responses to the world on our screens. This single option is supposed to be an equally adequate reaction to a funny cat picture and a news story about police brutality. Plus, social media’s built-in expectations of “liking”, re-tweeting, pinning, and voting can give us a false sense of entitlement to judge others.

I got a Kindle Paperwhite for my birthday, which I like very much, but every time I finish a book, it invites me to rate it from one to five stars on Amazon. Online reviews are very useful–sometimes more entertaining reading than the book itself–but the star system, standing alone, has begun to strike me as absurd. What does it even mean to rank The Goldfinch and an upright vacuum cleaner according to the same metric?

The Buddha spoke of the Eight Worldly Winds: pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, and ill-repute and fame. The enlightened person seeks equanimity no matter which wind is blowing, not being tossed about by every change in circumstance. Her self-concept is larger and more flexible than any one instance of praise or blame, for example.

For a quick exercise in equanimity, check out the Amazon or Goodreads reviews of any book that you really loved or really hated. You’ll find equally passionate one-star and five-star reviews, sometimes based on the same exact thing about the book.

So I am going to celebrate, and have faith that my book will reach the right people at the right time. And always support it with a mother’s love, even if it poops its pants on picture day.

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