There’s a moment that often comes back to me.
Early autumn of 2010, at a bed-and-breakfast in Ontario’s Muskokas.
I was there on a solitary writing retreat and in the afternoon, at the desk, after a few days of hard work, I typed the last words and finished Swarm.
I stood up, walked outside, and sat by the cedar-coloured creek that ran through the property.
If I’d been a bird, my feathers would have been all puffed up, my throat muscling out a song.
After all, this was my first novel and I was done.
Oh, so sweetly naive.
I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve finished a manuscript… again… and it’s that moment that always comes back to me.
I suppose it’s because it was so wonderful, that feeling, like a first kiss (if you’re lucky) or that first time you walk out of an airport into the colours and smells of a completely new country.
I didn’t know, back then, what was ahead: more wrestling with plot, more rewrites, more rejections, and then, ultimately, the feeling that I didn’t quite get it, that I didn’t quite succeed in putting on the page the ideal story that had been hanging around, for years, in my head.
(Good stuff, too, of course, but we aren’t here for that).
How does Ann Patchett put it?
“The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together, I don’t take notes or make outlines; I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its colour, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page… Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the colour, the light and movement – is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.”
Back then, when I walked out to that creek, soul singing, I believed myself to be the greatest living writer of all time, that I’d just finished something so profound, that my future was humming with possibility.
I remember that snap-shot in my head of my little diva self, singing her song about the Giller Prize, but I also remember my intense fear of approaching that freshly-finished manuscript, of seeing what I’d done, of realizing the butterfly was smashed on the page.
I remember how much I avoided the reading part of the whole writing thing.
This time, I’m not as scared.
Maybe it’s because I realize that being a writer is simply being a writer, or maybe it’s because I’ve trained my brain to quickly overcome anxiety by going regularly to the work and can therefore concentrate better, or maybe it’s because, well, I actually (mostly) enjoy what I do, but this time, after finishing novel draft #4 (4? I think it’s 4…), and drinking said glass of wine, I printed the thing off the same day I finished. It was a Saturday, and on the Monday, I started reading.
And, this happened, of course.
But I’m okay with that.
Because what else was I was expecting?
And because more often than not, I love the work, even when it shakes me awake at three a.m. with new ideas, deeper understandings, and I groan and get up.
“I thought that to have a painting in a museum exhibit would be the ultimate,” said the late artist Barbara Siegel. “Then it happened and it wasn’t the ultimate. The next day I was back in my studio still trying to figure out what I was doing.”
It’s necessary, I think, to be like that bird.
Sing when the sun comes up on your manuscript, but then live your regular life: dig around in the muck and bugs, looking for the tasty bits, spitting out the rest.