People ask me if I am almost done the novel I am writing, like it’s a novel I’m reading and I’m about to move on to another. I could give writerly excuses, such as I am creating a world, and a world cannot be finished. Or I could claim to be a perfectionist who will never feel finished but will be forced to stop writing at some point. But the truth is I’m really not in any way almost done. I’ve been working on the same story for over three years now (which might make you think I’m almost done) but the truth is the novel itself as I imagine it doesn’t exist yet. It hasn’t been written.
I’ve written parts of it. I’ve written drafts that look like novels and I’m done those. But I am not done the thing itself that I am making. Say you are painting a tree. You’ve painted a tree, but you meant to paint the tree you were looking at. Wouldn’t you have to restart, to get the tree you see and not the simple, other one you painted? Wouldn’t you have to add the branches just the way you see them, have the light hit right where the light actually hits? Yes, I’ve done paintings of trees, but I haven’t painted my tree yet.
I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I can read a page and be done it, but have I really read it? I’m trying this thing I used to do when I was young (a mental challenge) where I don’t use bookmarks. I open the book up again hours later and I try to remember the page number I had put to memory, or the last event I read about. It used to be easier than finding a bookmark, and gave me a lasting ability to skim through pages. But Virgina Woolf isn’t very skimmable. It’s hard to find an event I was last at. It’s made me realize I read books a lot less closely than I should. It’s made me think about the power of rereading, of never actually finishing a page.
Because if I read To the Lighhouse and put it down, did I really read the book? Did I finish it, as it was intended to be finished? I probably won’t have spent a lot of time thinking of the ideas in the book, contemplating the characters’ motives, their relationships, the importance of the setting of the book or the intention of the author in bringing them all together. I would have read the words, yes, but I might not have read the book.
If the intention of writing a novel is to have it published, then one should keep working on the book until it is publishable. If the intention of writing a novel is to write the novel one intends to write, then shouldn’t one keep working on the book until the book feels like the book it was intended to be? Publishing, I think, will never be my goal when writing a novel. It will be a way to give the novel life, to let others read it and to let it be the form of art that it is. Is a painting really a painting if no one looks at it? If the tree you painted (the complete art form of the actual tree you saw and then transcribed, somehow, with your paintbrush, until you felt it represented the tree you knew) were never shown to anyone, would it really matter that you had painted it? You would have seen it, but you saw the tree too. What about the person across the world who has never seen that form of life, who has his or her whole life imagined a tree of such beauty, but never taken the trip to visit it? I think you’re painting that tree for them, so you should try your best not to lie about it.