The Fraught Finish Line: Writers talk about the end of the book

By Stacey May Fowles

end o book

The act of finally finishing a book comes with its own unique set of emotions. Some, of course, are fairly obvious—you spend weeks, months, and years of your life on a single project, writing and rewriting, fussing and fixing, and then all of a sudden it’s over. When it’s off to the printer, destined to be out in the world, being “done” is a time for relief, celebration, and maybe even a little back-patting pride.

But like the end of any meaningful long-term relationship, the emotions invoked by the bitter end of writing a book are not always that straightforward. Sure there’s satisfaction and excitement, and an eagerness for readers to experience what you’ve spent so much time crafting, but as many writers will tell you, not all of the feelings are altogether positive. Sometimes there’s a messy stew of anxiety, self-doubt, and even fear to contend with, and the fact that “it’s just part of the process” doesn’t make it any easier.

Because putting a book into the world is a rare opportunity, one that writers are supposed to be happy about and grateful for, it’s not always easy to talk about some of the more negative emotions that come with being done. When the world expects you to be triumphant, it can be difficult to openly admit, “well, actually this is really hard.”  That feeling of a loss of purpose, of being scared and unmoored, can be a challenge to articulate when for so long, the long-term daily mission was to write that final sentence.

If you speak with writers in their more private moments, a lot of them will share that the space between finishing a book and it becoming a tangible, bound object can be more than a little stressful. Daniel Zomparelli, whose short fiction collection Everything Is Awful and You're a Terrible Person will be released with Arsenal Pulp Press in April, was generously candid with me about the sometimes not so good feelings that spring from the end of the process.

“I always feel very sad and scared when finishing a book,” he told me. “I feel deflated, like I just got let go from a job that I liked. Scared because what if I spent the past six years writing a garbage book and everyone hates the book, then hates me.” Everything Is Awful is Zomparelli’s first work of fiction, and the long, intense process of building a manuscript out of interconnected stories (with some non-fiction mixed in) was, in his words, “a bit weird” for him—as was what he felt when he was done.

“I think the only surprise I had with this book is I don't have that same feeling I have of not wanting to write for a year,” he said when comparing the experience of previous works. “This time I feel ready to write again. That's a new feeling for me. After finishing my first two books I fantasized (and did) work in administrative jobs where I organized folders and spreadsheets.”

Canisia Lubrin has been working on her poetry collection Voodoo Hypothesis since late 2008 (it will be released with Wolsak & Wynn in the fall) and it’s a book she describes as “an interrogation of the powerful and the powerless in relation to racialized living.”  She began the book as an undergraduate student of creative writing, and in 2015 her now-editor Paul Vermeersch accepted the manuscript for publication, encouraging her to write some new poems.

“Some days I felt it impossible to navigate the traumas that were metastasizing all over the place for people of colour,” she says of the process. “Thankfully for me, poetry is where I go to discover what lies beyond, beneath and within my ignorance of the world.” Lubrin further speaks of the impulse to shift and continuously improve on the final product until the last available moment. “I’m still hoping to slide in a few poems because the book doesn’t come out until October,” she tells me. “But also because I’ve got a problem: I doubt all of my poems. So my position on the dénouement is still unresolved.”

Despite the fact that Lubrin still has some room on the calendar to make changes, the poet has already grappled with the intense feelings the end can bring. “I’ve gone through what you can call the five stages similar to death: denial that I’m actually publishing a book; coming to terms with the fact that I’m actually publishing a first book that in its own way is quite angry (it’s an angry book? Yes, it is.); bargaining about why I should be over the moon about publishing an angry book; depression hasn’t come yet but it must, right? I’ve accepted the immense privilege of having made words my own, and that they’re being put in a form that others can engage with.”

Globe and Mail critic Julia Cooper, whose non-fiction book The Last Word: Reviving the Dying Art of Eulogy will be published with Coach House Books in May, shares some of Lubrin and Zomparelli’s sentiments, while speaking highly of her editor Emily Keeler’s support throughout the process. “I felt a pang of terror at the thought of anyone other than Emily reading it,” Cooper says of the moment the book was out of her hands. “She had been wildly patient and kind with me—she allowed me to stumble and to experiment a bit—and I know that, statistically, not all readers will be so generous. (That’s not their job).”

The good news is that, according to Cooper, this kind of writerly terror is not necessarily lasting. “That fear has now dissipated, even though the book hasn’t yet come out,” she adds. “I’m proud of what I was able to do with this little book. Maybe it won’t vibe with everyone who picks it up, but I do hope that it will resonate with the people who need it.”

So how exactly does a writer deal with the end? The writers I corresponded with have a few tips. Lubrin says she’s taken up meditation to get her through. Cooper credits the gift of her editor and publisher with helping her feel grounded throughout the process. “Find people who will support your ideas,” she advises. “You will need cheerleaders.” Zomparelli has a more humorous recommendation; “I've been doing a lot of face masks and moisturizing. I figure if anyone hates the book I can point to how soft my skin is.”

On a more serious note, Zomparelli tells me how important it is to look outside yourself when grappling with the onslaught of emotions that come with being done. “Writing is such a lonely process and that kind of introversion can turn you into a dick,” he says. “Focusing on doing nice things for other people will help bring you back into your community, and your self.”

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Stacey May Fowles is the author of three novels, and her bylines include The National PostThe Globe and MailElle CanadaMaisonneuveToronto LifeThe WalrusVice SportsHazlittQuill and Quire, and others. Fowles' third novel, Infidelity (ECW press 2013) was shortlisted for the ReLit Award, was selected as an Amazon Best Book of 2013, and won an Independent Publisher Book Award. Her most recent book, Baseball Life Advice, is an essay collection released by McClelland & Stewart in spring 2017. Editor of Best Canadian Sports Writing (ECW 2017,) Fowles writes about books for The Globe and Mail, baseball for Jays Nation and The Athletic, and is author of the popular weekly Baseball Life Advice e-newsletter.