I submitted my book manuscript last week. Such a simple sentence. Seven words arranged in a line. I could have written that I brushed my teeth last night. Or I shopped for groceries on Saturday. Or even, I mowed the lawn on Saturday because it was sunny. Simple, straightforward sentences. And yet. There is so much more percolating under the surface.
The manuscript represents four years of thinking, reading, researching and writing. Annual research trips to Lausanne (I know, someone’s got to do it); many, many hours playing in the archives; lots of pain au chocolat and gruyère (not at the same time) and many long walks along the shores of Lake Geneva. It represents lots and lots of reading and writing. Many, many hours of thinking. More concept maps than I can count. 10 notebooks of archival writing and summarizing, every page marked up with colour, underlining, stars and arrows. Three fat binders of transcriptions and lists. More interlibrary loans than I can count. Lots of late nights. Gnashed teeth. Bliss. Joy. Tears. Frustration. Wonder. And also much laughter. Wouldn’t you laugh, too, if you read that someone’s seizures had been preceded by an “abuse of sweet pastries”?
The final two weeks before submission were devoted entirely to editing, probably the most painful and least creative work that exists: formatting footnotes, ensuring the bibliography was complete, going through the manuscript three times with a fine tooth comb for spelling and other errors. Incredibly, I rearranged part of Chapter 4 completely three days before submitting, and rethought aspects of Chapter 6 a short while later. By the end, I couldn’t see straight. And I certainly couldn’t look at the manuscript anymore. And so… I saved it. I printed it. I wrote an email to the editor at the university press. And I hit send.
And then I sat with myself in disbelief.
Sending it off was both terrifying and exhilarating. Those were the exact words that I wrote to the editor. It was monumentous. A huge amount of work and it had finally taken shape. But the final stages of any project are always filled with doubt. My letters and I had journeyed so far together. We had come to know each other so well. Or so I believe. Does the story we have created together – for research is always a journey shaped by both researcher and participants – make sense?
Terrifying and exhilarating. An untameable energy that resembles, in so many ways, the feelings I used to have before a really important musical performance: a major competition, a concerto with orchestra, a live radio broadcast. Wonder and doubt. Bliss and struggle. Certainty, rightness, peace …. and fear, nerves and trembling.
Terrifying and exhilarating.
Imagine my surprise when I came across these exact words just last night, in Dani Shapiro’s new book, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. Shapiro writes with grace and wisdom about the practice of writing; of writing as an essential element not only of one’s work, but of one’s self. Peace. Struggle. Vulnerability. Endless patience. And underneath it all, an enduring commitment to writing as creative practice. It’s a wonderful book and I’d recommend it to anyone. In fact, I many well make it required reading for my graduate students, words they can draw on when the going gets tough.
In a chapter (are they chapters, really?) entitled, “Break,” about finishing a project, she writes
If beginnings require fortitude, and middles stamina – if, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, your work is a lion in a cage in your study, a wild thing you must visit every day in order to reassert your mastery over it – endings ask of you only that you take a step back. A day off? Two? Three? A long walk? A drive in the country? A bath? A few stiff drinks with a friend? All of the above? Go for it, I say. Take a break if you need one. Turn down that noisy mind and come back to the page later. That wild animal has taken a nap and is sitting contentedly in a corner of your study, chewing on the rug. You will finish. You have fashioned a world. It’s terrifying and exhilarating. If you have a pulse, this is exactly how you should feel. (196-7)
Terrifying and exhilarating.
Just a few days after I sent off the book manuscript, this came in the mail:
Terrifying and exhilarating on a whole new level.