On Finishing

Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies ends this way:

“There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.”

Is there a better ending to a novel? I can’t remember one.

I am thinking about endings because I am finishing two long-term projects. I just sent off my manuscript for The Search for Adam, my book on creation and evolution. And, I am finishing up the publishing process for Birmingham, my novel of the civil rights movement.

Being a writer affords me the enviable experience of producing visible products. Like an architect or an engineer or an artist or a carpenter, I can point to something and say, “That is my work. It’s done, and I can move on to something else.” Such work offers satisfaction that is lacking in many other important occupations–doctoring, teaching, administering, repairing, manufacturing–that never really end.

I’ve now finished 28 books. and have become quite familiar with the emotions of the experience. You would expect exhilaration, but what actually comes is a mixture of satisfaction and letdown. It’s very like graduation. Celebration is appropriate, but a part of you feels empty and adrift.

Why the sadness?

–Because it’s done, work that you enjoyed doing and can never do again.
–Because it’s out of your hands, and its fate depends on others–publishers, booksellers, buyers, readers, critics. You delivered the baby and gave it up for adoption.
–Because the act of creation puts dreams into solid form, which never quite live up to what they could be. In the end, it’s just another book. Of which, one can’t help thinking, there are too many.

Most of all, sadness comes because you can’t carry joy forward. Contemplating your accomplishments is an extremely fleeting satisfaction. People who make an occupation of looking back are inevitably miserable company.

Human beings look forward. We need to feel that we are going somewhere. For only brief periods can we live in the present, as other animals apparently do without effort. Consciousness presses us to speculate about the future, to live toward whatever is coming to be.
Thus every ending is, for us, a beginning. Our minds and hearts are geared for what has yet to emerge. It’s just how we are.

That would be an extremely odd manifestation in a world that was stuck in sameness. It would be a terrible and crippling disability if our job was to fit into a universe that always ends in physical disability and death, a universe where the stars can only be extinguished one by one into eternal darkness. Is it possible we are suited for a different kind of world, one that offers an eternal prospect?

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One Response to “On Finishing”

  1. David Graham Says:

    Good ending question for a thoughtful post…

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