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Confessions of a Serial Non-finisher

Snails [1]I’ve been telling myself that no one wants to read a heavy-duty confession on a Monday morning. But since this is when my WU slot arises and since my brain refuses to cough up an alternate subject for a post, it appears we’re stuck with seeing this through.

You ready? *deep breath*

Hi. My name is Jan and I’m a recovering serial non-finisher of long-form fiction.

I’ve been writing for about six years now. Five years ago, much to my astonishment and delight, I became the Voice of the Unpublished Writer for WU. The implication of that honor — at least in my mind — was that I’d immediately begin working to put myself out of a job, both to give another writer the chance to be part of this awesome community and to satisfy my own ambition. Yet until a few months ago, barring the travelogue I wrote in grade seven, and which exceeded the suggested word count by 900%, I had never finished the first draft of any long-form fiction.

It’s not that I don’t write or can’t write, though there was a gap of twenty-five years when I pursued the practice of medicine and gave up all dreams of writing fiction. (Perhaps entrenching a habit of self-denial that I’ve had to break again and again.) Since picking up the pen as an adult, I’ve written nearly 500 blog posts for various sites. For a time I edited and wrote for the WU newsletter. I’ve entered flash fiction contests and sent in pages for agent-sponsored critiques. In all instances where I’ve had deadlines set by another party, I’ve met them with time to spare and work, I believe, of a reasonable standard.

I also have a hard drive littered with fiction projects. In one world of linked characters alone, I have three first drafts in the 50,000-80,000-word range. One novel’s first draft is approximately 85% complete, which was how far I got before I started down a frustrating and circular path.

You’ll note, however, that I said I was in recovery.

While I have theories about what holds me back, and theories about what made this project different than my numerous false starts, we can talk about that in another blog post. Today I have a different goal.

Today I’d like to talk to the other serial non-finishers in the crowd, because from casual comments to pleas for help on WU’s Facebook page, I know I’m in good company.

First, to those of you who publicly blew off steam and bared your soft underbelly to the world, thank you. Your comments helped the struggle become impersonal. They gave me hope in the form of thoughts like this one: If X, who is otherwise put-together and a fabulous human being, also struggles to finish, maybe I’m not hopeless. Maybe this is just my awkward writing adolescence. So X, while while I’m sorry for your pain — and trust me, I know how discouraging those months and years of self-doubt can be — allow me to express my gratitude for your openness.

Second, this post is my attempt to pay it back, because when you’ve been a non-finisher for any length of time, two questions lodge in your mind and, like a tick, siphon off creative blood.

1) If I ever manage to write The End, will it feel anticlimactic?

I’ve reached significant milestones before and been underwhelmed by the experience. For instance, I graduated from medical residency on a Friday and started my full-time practice on the following Tuesday. In many ways, it felt as if I’d simply started another training rotation under an exacting jerk of a boss.

Would finishing a first draft feel the same?

As it happens, I can share a snapshot of that moment. Here is a passage from my longest-running writing project to date — my journal — which the ToolMaster has promised to burn without reading if I should predecease him. (Yes, this means you will know more about my inner musings than my husband.) Forgive the roughness; I didn’t want to prettify it and lose the sentiment.

In my imagination, finishing your first long manuscript will feel equivalent to swimming the span of the Atlantic Ocean at age 50. When you emerge onto the sands of Nova Scotia, you will laugh so hard that you scare away seals basking on the rocks of the bay and the salt of your tears and the ocean will commingle. You will hear a choir of angels and feel incandescent with joy, as if those angels brought with them a giant magnifying glass which collected all the goodness in the world and beamed it onto you, so you were aflame with it, crisped with it, poof, there went lost your carefully arched eyebrows and you couldn’t find in you a particle of regret. (In nod to global warming, maybe angels should employ a giant-watt LED.)

I’ve imagined it many times, yet in reality: I sit in a worn, wing-backed chair rescued from a neighbor’s front yard when they tired of snagging their clothing on the extruded upholstery nails. My laptop is so old it creaks and smells of joint balm.

I’m alone for the moment, everyone else off at school and work. The cats have been banished for one too many buttock displays, the dog for her leaping eyebrows which reproach me for my indolent nature. There is no spotlight, no heavenly choir, yet my heart beats with a sense of significance — turns out it’s as oxygenating as blood and twice as satisfying — and my lips taste of salt.

2) Once into revisions, will the joy of finishing dissipate?

The UnConference 2014 confirmed what I’d known in my heart before I attended it: this project requires substantial revisions before it’ll be ready to send to anyone, including my kindly beta readers. In November, somehow that news invigorated me.

Now, while the euphoria has faded somewhat, I’m mentally a million miles ahead of where I was at this time last year. The reason? It’s obvious how much I underestimate my desire to write — my thickheaded, unrelenting, blessed stubbornness. Therefore, If I can push through when I believe I don’t have it in me, how far can I get when I believe that I do?

For I am a finisher. Join me, X. I believe you can become one, too.

Now to you, Unboxeders. Have you finished the first draft of a long work of fiction? Was this a seminal moment in that you recall where you were, the circumstances of your life at the time, how it felt? Did your euphoria fade quickly or fail to appear altogether? If you have yet to write The End, what are your expectations around finishing?

About Jan O'Hara [2]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [3] (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [4]; Cold and Hottie [5]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [6]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.