“You’re a finisher!”
I was recently talking to my friend Annaliese, whom I haven’t seen for a while, and sharing some of the things that have happened to me since we last really caught up. (The time spread of this list whapped me upside the head. Sorry, Annaliese. I’ll pick up my end of the stay-in-touch thing and wave it like a happy flag.)
Anyway, I talked a little bit about the process of completing my dissertation. (English and American Literature and Language, Harvard, 2006.) I entered my graduate program back in 1992, but ended up taking a seven year hiatus to do things like get divorced and Have Adventures.
During said Adventures, I managed to hang on to my AM diploma–which, ironically, I only picked up because I filled out a form to officially get the degree; I needed to teach. It hung on my wall as a reminder that once upon a time, I had belonged somewhere. Harvard had been wonderful to me, and I looked at it as a sort of heaven from which I had cast myself. I never really thought I’d go back. I was, after all, a loser babe; see “Adventures,” above.
Then a number of self-perceived and inflicted obstacles vanished; and there I was, back in Cambridge. I was getting financial aid, which I needed to feed myself and my kid, as said Adventures had included making a really bad job decision which bit me on the ass. (Short moral: Academics teaching high school should be aware that “career changers” are often viewed with extreme hostility.) Thus, I viewed making sufficient progress on the diss as my job. I knew I’d eventually fail; but one of my self-imposed obstacles back then was a sense that things happened to me, and that I was powerless to push these looming bad things away. (Loser babe.)
But . . . I have an endocrine disorder, called hyperparathyroidism, which is four feet of trochees and a serious nasty pain in the ass–or in my case, bones. (Short moral: Take your vitamin D, kiddies.) I wasn’t able to hike the mile or so to the library, but Harvard has a short bus. So every morning at 10 am, I would drag my crippled ass out and get on the short bus, which would dump me out at Widener, and collect me again at 4:30.
And if it hadn’t been for that bus, I’d probably still be looking at my AM diploma and whimpering, instead of looking at it and grumping that its pal is missing because I owe Harvard a whole lot of money, and it’s held hostage. So–250 pages later–I completed the yah-da yah-da requirements so on and so forth, got to wear the big pink dress in an inevitably raining Tercentenary Theatre, and ensure that regardless of term bill, a phone call to my department will affirm that yes, I are a PhD.
But it was a fluke, brought on by the short bus–no, actually, by not wanting to make Bonnie unhappy. (Bonnie is the incredibly nice lady who runs the short bus, and we had a number of lovely conversations.)
Meanwhile back at the notebook: As I hope all writers know, the best way to start to write is to start to write. And so, while sitting in Child Library on Widener’s third floor, I would somewhat guiltily spend my first hour or so noodling about, writing fake email between me and my imaginary friends. (Oh, yeah. Like most writers don’t have them. Pull the other one.) This correspondence got somewhat involved; and unbeknown to me, the friends were gathering depth. Slowly, imperceptibly; like that small-flake cold snow which whispers into many-inch drifts, and stays there.
And meanwhile back at the TV, Angel was being canceled. This was upsetting. Mr. Boreanaz is lovely to the eye, and other viewers will recall that they were plotting themselves into a corner; and I wanted more. Well, no. But over one weekend, I found myself thinking about vampires, and what if they were or could be real, and how would that work in terms of biology–and within the space of a very few days, my friends were all alien vampires.
I kept poking around at the biology part and reading up on things like transient amnesia and hematopoiesis. And then I wrote a short story, and looked at it for a while. I’d never actually finished a short story that was worthy of the name. It felt weird. So I posted it on deviantArt, and sort of looked at it, wondering if I could write another. But I knew I couldn’t. I was a loser babe who’d tried to write fiction before and failed. So it was a fluke.
Poor vampires. But they wouldn’t get out of my head, and pieces of their culture joined the snow.
Then, out of the blue, one of these guys poked me hard in the ribs; and I started telling his story, and I told it for five years. I carried a notebook with me wherever I went: On the T; to set painting for MIT’s Gilbert & Sullivan group; to and from a really good contract job. Terry talked and talked and talked. I became aware that I was writing a book, and he became my anchor.
And then I got sicker, and had more Adventures. Being a loser babe, you know. So Terry, the notebook, and I went to various poverty offices; and then to a homeless shelter. (Can’t work=no money=can’t pay rent=get evicted=that’s the way it goes if you don’t have family.) I was a loser babe, and I knew it. For three months or so the third or fourth filled notebook sat in a little pile. But I knew Terry was still there, and that somehow he thought I was still the person who told his story, and the story of all the rest of his fang-pumping pals. So I wrote one of the climaxes of his narrative on a little couch outside of our room in the shelter, and every week I would haul down to Harvard and work for the afternoon. (Choir practice took the place of the short bus.)
And then we got an apartment, where my perceptive friend Preston (who was graciously reading the damned thing) pointed out that there was stuff Terry really didn’t know–so I spent months turning half of his narrative into third-person. By this time I had realized that my role in this movie was to be the writer, and that a goal here was actually publishing the damn thing and making money. Then I started worrying about the fact that it was a little more novel-y than the genre novels its likely readers enjoy, and that it needed pizzazz. So I thought that vampires needed slayers; and hey, how about a serial killer?
Poor Damascus started out as something of a sleazeball, and I began wondering how he ended up that way. So just for my own edification, I started telling his story off to the side. When I was finished, Damascus was more than a plot device, and I started thinking that I really was writing one damn fine book.
Which would never happen, because I’m a loser babe. I knew I’d never finish, and my daughter and Preston would be disappointed in me, but that’s just how my life was.
We all moved back to Cambridge, where I’m currently on disability. Terry went off and sulked for a while–but by then a whole lot more people were telling me about what was happening in the third person part; so screw Terry anyway.
About a month ago, I found out exactly how it was going to turn out, and stared at the chapter outline in the table of contents. And I realized that some unseen and unknowable force inside of me was going to bail; because for the entire five years, I knew at bottom that I’d never actually finish it. I finally winced through a word count, and discovered that I had somehow managed to spend five years writing *two* books. But on I went down the home stretch; Terry and I had a come-to-Jesus; and in two manic RSI-risking days . . .
. . . I was finished.
Well, the first draft, anyway; but that for me was the hard part; and now I get to do the fun part of transcribing it into an automatic second draft. But–it’s finished.
All that said, the reader by now has picked up the rhetorical emphasis on my essential core self-concept being that I’m a loser babe, and so when Annaliese said proudly, “You’re a finisher!” it hadn’t occurred to me that I was.
I have ADHD, and I do the usual thing of starting a lot of little projects and wandering off; and, being after all a loser babe, that was just the way it went.
But by golly, it turns out that I’m a finisher. So I went back and read my own resume, as it were–and I’m a finisher. Not a loser babe. Heh. Who’da thunk?