Am I Done Yet?

I attended a local writer’s conference a few months ago and after listening to the two fiction leaders (Chris Belden & Adele Annesi) talk about writing fiction, they had a Q & A.

“How do I know when I’m done?” I asked.

The first response was a giggle, maybe a snort, followed by “That’s the question. That’s what we all want to know,” Adele said.

So maybe it’s a bit of a relief to know (or to hear again), that this is not a black and white answer. Of course it’s not. We’re dealing with art, right? But I’m 3-1/2 years in to writing my first novel, and how do I know when I’ve started to just spin my wheels? How do I know when this thing is done? One of the writers explained that you reach a point where you’ve given all that you can, and you just realize it’s time to send it out into the world and see what happens. My friend nudged me, “That’s you. You’re there.”

I’ve read that when you think about your characters as real people when you’re not writing, that’s a good sign. At a party a few weeks ago, a friend told me that she’s the middle child with an older sister and a younger brother, and I replied, “Oh, like one of my characters. She has the same birth order/sexes for her kid. And I worry about the middle one, too.” She looked at my like I was a little off, but I remember thinking that this was at least a good sign. 

Then last week I was shopping at Trader’s Joe’s and could have sworn I saw my favorite playwright, Kenneth Lonergan, standing next to me in line. My face got red, my heart started to beat heavy. I would never had said anything to him, but I was just so excited that he was in my town. At my Trader Joe’s. As I loaded my groceries in to my car, I saw him loading his, and realized, of course, that it wasn’t him. A look-a-like, probably at least ten years younger. But he had that wry smile, those glasses, a subtle beard. I felt letdown at the time, but now I wonder, does it matter? If it made me excited just to think it was him, why did it matter that it wasn’t? I immediately thought of my favorite lines from “You Can Count on Me”, “This Is Our Youth”. I felt creatively inspired as I walked out of that store.

Almost twenty years ago I saw Maya Angelou at a grocery store on the upper east side. After she paid for her groceries she drove off in a limo. A poet in a limo. It’s a story I’ve told over and over again. And now I wonder, was it even her? Could it have been a look-a-like? Does it matter? 

I’ve read that grit is more important than talent. If you give up, what does it matter how good your work is? I’m seeing this through. I’m not looking for signs anymore. 

A quote I like to share with my writing students: “Writing a book is like having an empty pool in the yard and every day going out and throwing in a cup of water to fill it. –BETHANY BALL

You have to really enjoy filling that pool, otherwise you’ll give up before the end. The progress is so slow at times you want to give up, but you don’t. You keep going. You keep going. You keep going. 


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