Getting to the end of a long work—say, a novel—that you’ve been working at daily for month after month is a peculiar feeling. There’s a moment, perhaps a day or two, of jubilation, a sense of great accomplishment and freedom; but after that a peculiar feeling of restless emptiness starts to creep in.
I’ve always had what I think of as long energy. For a start, I’m patient. Secondly, it’s my nature to pace myself and always hold a little energy in reserve. Some folks are sprinters, others, marathon runners. I know people (I’m married to one) who can work with superhuman efficiency at a breakneck pace, burning like an acetylene torch and giving 110% for five or six hours until their tank’s empty—and when it is, that’s it, there ain’t no more till tomorrow; whereas I can maintain a steady, unhurried, good focus for twelve or fourteen hours at need, and still have enough left over to clean and pack up at the end. That may be why I feel so much more comfortable with the novel form than with short stories. Everyone’s energy modality is different.
When I was a decorative painter beautifying the houses of the rich, the majority of my jobs were brief, 3-4 day affairs; rather like writing a short story, there was a substantial amount of preliminary work and then a load of cleanup, but the actual time on site was brief. I also had a couple of projects that went on for a year or so, sprawling homes that required complex planning and precise calendaring, not to mention interfacing with other trades, most of whom seemed determined to cause me grief and didn’t give a damn about anything except getting paid and getting out: besides maintaining consistency and pacing myself, the biggest challenge on those projects was usually retaining my sanity and not killing anyone.
But the nature of the work—applying decorative finishes to large wall surfaces using glazes that required maintaining a constant ‘wet edge’—was well-suited to someone with long energy, since once you started on a big wall, especially on a hot day, you couldn’t stop till you reached the end. I remember one project, the plaster underside of a huge, curving, double staircase in a classical mansion, where I started at seven in the morning and finished at eight at night, burning through two assistants in the process and eating one-handed as I worked. In truth, I’ve always enjoyed these marathon runs: they suit my nature and bring great satisfaction.
So it is with writing a novel. But the difference with writing is that after that initial burst of accomplishment, even after the rewrites and polish, you’re still not done. For a start (unless you’re pre-sold or under contract), you have to find a home for the damn thing. And of course you’ve got into the habit (hopefully) of daily work, maybe even at a regular time, and now you’re twiddling your thumbs. But worse than that, you’ve engaged and trained your imaginative faculty, breathed life into these characters, and they’re in your head, bigtime. What do you do with them? Write them into another story? You hope they’ll settle down and give you peace when the novel’s published, but either way, you have to clear your head in order to devote yourself to the next project.
This is just how it feels for me; you may be different. Now I’m done with the second book, I’m eager to start on the next. The long trip (people compare writing a novel to rowing across the Atlantic, and it’s so true—there are long periods where you can’t see any land and doubt your compass) was a wholly satisfying experience. But I think that I’m going to have to clear my head first, give my characters notice and turn them out of their comfortable digs to earn their keep in the world. I think the best way to do this may be to revisit one of the several short stories I got stuck on during my apprenticeship, one of the ones that’s got too much of good in it to ditch altogether but which I didn’t have the craft back then to finish. Now, perhaps, I will.
Before I and my long energy set out on the next Atlantic voyage.