The Beast Takes a Break

i-ac1fe8b1a4f13eb39ac84317a61e6daf-nightmare.jpgOn the last day of December, I turned in the final draft of my book about E. coli and the meaning of life. This is the sixth time around for me, and I'm getting familiar now with the havoc the experience wreaks on my nerves. In the final few weeks, the book becomes a monster that follows me around to every room of the house, out on the walks I take with my family. It crouches in the movie theaters and restaurants where I go with my wife to take a break. It just sits there, rumbling and wheezing, making me aware that it is still with me. I work late into the night, trying to get it out of the house and out of my life.

And then it's gone. I sent off my first book as an old-fashioned stack of printed pages. I sent the second one off by email. I'm still disturbed when I see the progress bar on my mail program stretching across the screen, as a year or two of work blasts out of my computer in twenty seconds. And once the transmission has ended, I'm suddenly restless and at a loss. I still need to write--that's how the mortgage gets paid--but in the wake of a book project, magazine and newspaper articles seem strangely slight. (And blogging seems like flicking motes of dust.) Once the monster is gone, little matters.

I know this feeling will pass, and that in a week or two I'll be fiercely blogging and obsessed with my next article. And then, after a couple more weeks, the monster will return, when my editor has had a chance to read the manuscript and tell me what needs work. But I wonder if this is a psychological state other authors go through, or anyone else who lives with a project for so long. Perhaps it's just the afterimage you get when you look away from the sun.

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As near as I can tell, that feeling is nearly completely universal across all creative disciplines. I've felt it myself with both art and writing, and I've watched other artists and writers go through the same thing.

The metaphor I usually use to describe how I feel when I'm done with a big project is 'emptied toothpaste tube'.

For me, as the project nears its completion its one big adrenalin rush of anxiety. Since progress on a manuscript is a law of diminishing returns, that last 3% is a real persnickity slog. But once you hit the send key, there's a bit of disorientation, then a kind of euphoria: the manuscript is now out of your hands, and you've done the best you could.

That feeling lasts for about 24h if I'm lucky. Then the next project starts bleating from the hard drive, I open the excel file, and begin again.

Getting things done in Academia
a guide for grad students

Another perspective...and difference in sensibilities and times?

"It was on the day or rather the night of the the 27th of June 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve that I wrote the last lines of the last page in a summerhouse in my garden. After laying down my pen, I took several turns in a berceau or covered walk of Acacias which commands a prospect of the country, the lake and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene; the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all Nature was silent. I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom and perhaps the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea I had taken my everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that, whatever might be the future date of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious."

-- Edward Gibbon, describing the moment when he finally completed The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

By Joseph Urban (not verified) on 09 Jan 2007 #permalink

If you've never checked out Edward Gorey's "Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel," you should. What you describe is mirrored exactly there.

"Flicking Motes of Dust" - good name for a blog, actually.

Carl: you should know that when you do flick that dust of yours into the blogosphere, there are many of us waiting to pick it up, vacuum cleaners at the ready, so to speak.

Looking forward to reading the book!

I am a researcher, and you have described the exact feeling I get when I fire off a proposal. The research proposed represents potential for the next two to three years of my life and the lives of my fellow researchers; it's value (in my experience) is $100k, $750k, or as much as $10m; it takes weeks or months to describe in a proposal what has taken years to determine through research; I rack my brain non-stop as I pore over the details millions of times, write them, get them illustrated, then read them one last time, then...

Then I have to send and e-mail, with an attached PDF, and move on to the next task.

At this point, a feeling that I believe must be something like post-traumatic stress comes over me. I think it has a lot to do with the simple fact that "what to do next" has been so rigorously defined (research and write the next section) and all else has been demoted on my priority list for so long. When the #1 focus of my life goes away -- with the requirement that I move on and wait 4, 6, or 12 months for a response -- it's tough to pick myself up and move on to whatever it was that held meaning for me before I started the proposal.

I know it's not the same as writing a book, but I felt some parallels in your description of your emotions.

Winston Churchill: 'Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.'

tell me the name of the book so i can find it on amazon when its ready.

By Tim Mckool (not verified) on 11 Jan 2007 #permalink

Tim--When I have a title, I'll let you know. Thinking up titles is always an agonizing business, at least for me. You have to boil down 80,000 words to 3. And they'd better be 3 words that not only capture the complete essence of the book, but will also stop shoppers in their tracks at the book store.

If the revisions don't turn into a major rebuild, the book should be out in the spring of 2008. But again, I'll keep you posted.