How I Finished My Book: A Hobbit’s Tale

It’s a damp day in Wellington, and it’s pleasant really – sometime last month it became very dry here, I don’t know because of global warming or what, and it was a little unnerving to see the lush lawns of the Botanical Gardens rather withered. (The only thing thriving seemed to be the Australian Garden, made entirely of defiant cacti. I kept expecting to peer in and see a scorpion. Drinking a beer.) But now the world is damp, and I’m happy, swigging a very delicious flat white and wearing the decidedly unfashionable raincoat I bought at an Aldi four years ago.

Here, a selfie:

"We wish to stay at the inn. Our business is our own!"

“We wish to stay at the inn. Our business is our own!”

I’m feeling Frodo-ish for other reasons too. I’ve been in Wellington for two months now, and though my kind hosts have done their best to take me out on day trips (I saw a lot of truly delightful antique stores), it is high time I saw some of the world outside this magical Shire. I’m spending the first half of this week in the throes of trip planning, exhausting my two companions with constant emails about where we will stay and what we will see. (I hope there’s a chance they find my mania endearing. It’s just that I don’t want us to, say, take the Mines of Moria by accident. Right, guys?…Guys?)

But this trip is no death-march to toss a piece of jewelry into a flaming pit. Rather, it is a celebratory journey. A jubilant series of uphill steps. Not only am I done teaching (six weeks with the best students a person could conceivably ask for, even if they did insist on, say, bringing tequila to our final portfolio hand-in party), I, like elderly Bilbo Baggins, have finally finished my book. Did it require me moving to Rivendell? I’m not sure, but it couldn’t have hurt.

Here is how I think it happened. Apparently, I need:

1.A REALLY NICE OFFICE

Duh, a room of one’s own. Or several, actually. Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters, where I’ve been pretty much living for the past month and a half, is full of rooms with lovely large screens on which to work. I was granted an office upon arrival, but ended up commandeering the library, a cheery book-lined room that looks out onto the bay. I learned to curmudgeonishly shut the door when working – and since it was summer, I was, for the most part, left alone. Nobody walked in to brew tea or gossip about visiting faculty. Blissful solitude was mine.

2.UNLIMITED COFFEE

Another way it is superior to Dey House (how do you people manage to work there? For hours? Looking at you, Kyle Minor): the supply of never-ending exquisite French Press-ed coffee. I’m sorry, IWW, but never again will I swill a pot of scalding Maxwell House from a burnt carafe. Wellington has changed me for the snobbier.

3. TO BE A BIT LONELY

This is not to say I didn’t miss everyone and send lengthy emails to the Writers’ Workshop listserv from time to time making arcane requests, just to have a bit of human contact. I think it helped though that it was a bit lonely. To finish this book, I apparently needed to move to the other side of the planet and not really know anyone apart from my hosts and my host-sister-poet-friend Nikki-Lee Birdsey. I started it when I was living in Munich, wistfully lonely – it seems to make sense that I finish it on the other side of the planet, in the same sort of state. (I hope this isn’t a requirement for the rest of my life. Maybe future me will be better at work-life balancing than past me has been.)

4.A DEADLINE

Last year Rebecca Gradinger, optimist, agreed to represent me after having seen only the first forty pages of my book. She was like, “How much else is there?” and I was like, “Oh, tons!” I neglected to add that said material did not exist as straightforward prose: basically it was just a series of rambling word documents, several notebooks of notes, and a bunch of bad drafts I’d neglected. I felt like a fraud.

I continued feeling like a fraud the entire time I lived in a horse barn during the fall (more on that later, since I might be doing it again). Though I worked every day, my material really did not progress past the tons-of-notes stage. I kept trying to just write it down in a solid draft with an ending, but I faltered, even though I’d told Rebecca I would have it for her by December 1st. Near Christmas I broke down and confessed: it was just expanding and expanding, and I didn’t quite know when it’d be done. She wrote back and was like, “Well, what about March 1st?”

That’s too soon, I thought, panicking. But for some reason, I said yes. And now – though it’s not perfect – I have typed “The End”. I think a lot of this writing business is – on occasion – learning to settle for good enough.

5. TO BE READING A TON

When I went over the final portfolio requirements, my students all looked at me funny. Though they are prolific and sensible, and, being New Zealanders, too polite to say so, I could tell that they were unconvinced that thirty pages was a reasonable requirement for a final portfolio. I insisted that it was.They looked queasy.

Lo and behold, they produced. I’ve spent the weekend reading their work, and it is, by and large, amazing. Better even than the stuff they workshopped. Maybe, along with a deadline, a six-week intensive course in reading and writing fiction DOES help people. Including me, really. Who’d have thought?

6. A SUPER-SUPPORTIVE PERSON EGGING ME ON

After I had a second draft of the first fifty pages, I really, really needed assurance that my work wasn’t totally insane. Dini Parayitam, Total Woman, spiritual cast member of Girls and fellow Sarah Heyward-party-hostess, read my baby draft, gave gentle suggestions, and told me she was really excited to see how it ended. If she’d said “No, this is horrible, here’s all the reasons why it’s wrong,” I would have probably cried and given up. Same goes for my former teacher Kate Christensen, who I’d shanghaied into writing me a letter of recommendation for a fellowship – she wanted to see what she’d be recommending me for, so I sent her a chunk, and she said, “Yes, this is clearer and sharper and better!” and that was all I needed. Validation. A tiny bit of validation, inflated by my self-esteem into ridiculous praise.

Probably there are other factors too (my students all believed I was a real novelist and I didn’t want to disappoint them; I started exercising and drinking a lot of water; the birds outside my window are full of ideas). And I’m unsure which of these was the most important element. But damn, I can’t wait to recreate the experience. Novel-writing is really, really fun, as I’m sure you know if you’ve pulled it off without the help of solitude / copious coffee / gentle encouragement (and so many people do).

This week I’m getting ready to make final edits and send it off. And even if nothing comes of it, even if publishers are like “A book about a school bus crash that’s sort of a romance and sort of a comedy? Nahhh…”, I will still be glad I did it. I will still write another. And I guess really that’s all I hoped to find in New Zealand: myself.*

*(barfs at how Eat, Pray, Love that sounds, but types it anyway)

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