Dangerous Post-Project Time

I’m remembering a passage from Notes from Underground that I’m choosing right now not to go look up because I’m writing and have put a do-not-disturb sign on my door (which means you, too, Dostoevsky!) in which the U-man wonders if maybe people sometimes put off finishing things on purpose, maybe out of fear, as if completing something might mark the beginning of the end somehow. This struck me as true when I first read it as a youngster, and I still think it is, but like so much else, you see that it’s not that simple when you’ve lived a little more. The Woman in the Window took me a long time to finish, but I also never struggled to do so; I worked on it steadily, turning it this way and that, refining and shifting until I thought it was right and what I had was a shaped whole.

Still, the most difficult time, I think, if not to say the most dangerous one for the project itself, was when I thought I could see the end. Was this on some deep level due to fear? I don’t think so, but it’s not easy to remember everything one feels over, oh, say, a decade or so. What I do remember is the feeling that, at certain moments in the middle, I knew what I was going to write, what I needed to write, that the argument was in a sense laid out in front of me and all I needed to do was “write it up,” as some social scientists sometimes refer to the final part of their research when the data is in, and they just need to conjure up some prose to present it. This is the most wrong-headed idea about writing there ever was, and I certainly wasn’t right in thinking that the argument and the words were somehow out there already and just needed to be put to paper (screen). But it was a palpable sense, and in that way, very dangerous because once you have an inkling of that sort of feeling, it is just a tiny step more to stop writing altogether: the outcome feels known already so why put it down, why go to all that work to slog through putting down something you already (think you) know?

As I say, you don’t know, and it’s a false feeling, and it’s wrong-headed from the start to think of writing as something you use to put down a finished thought and not, what it is, a way of working through the thoughts themselves. This means that a thought, the thing you think you’ve come to understand, changes, develops, matures with each phrase and punctuation mark that you use to try and express it, that the answers to the questions you are working through are never formed until the last revision of the last draft of the last sentence is done. That is your best answer because you’ve finally finished the writing and revising, and you can’t work on it anymore.

Not without a reprint, at least. Or a second edition. Oh, God, will this never end?

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