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Fictional Empty Nest

I recently completed a round of novel edits so substantial that I practically rewrote the manuscript from scratch. It took way longer and was way harder than I expected. Those last few weeks, as each day blended into the next, I couldn’t wait to be done. I imagined the relief, the satisfaction, the freedom that would come once I sent this round off to my editor.

Anything that comes next with this book will be easier than this round of edits, I thought.

Once I’m done this, I never have to write another novel again, I promised myself.

Okay, so that last promise is highly unlikely, but I did promise myself this: Once I send this in, I can take the summer to play.

By play I mean write, of course, but write other stuff. Experiment with audio. Write some shorter pieces, maybe some flash fiction or an article. Do some art journalling. Write some letters. Maybe finally launch that online writing class I’ve been meaning to get to for years.

Summer of Play

That promise of a summer to play got me through those last hard weeks of edits. I had blank notebooks lined up and ready, I had picked a few books to read and online courses I wanted to take. I started reaching out to my network for Zoom coffee dates, and even a few IRL coffee dates, since we are allowed to have those now.

At last, the moment arrived. A few weeks ago, I sent the manuscript off to my editor. I lasted two whole days before the urge to jump into a new novel almost got the better of me.

I managed to resist that urge, but then, I came up with a plan to launch my online writing class in July — I’ve taught the class plenty of times and have the structure and the content, so… why not?

I managed to resist that urge too. I’m sitting with the discomfort of not having a novel or big project to escape into. Discomfort, and, I have to say as well, grief.

The Grief of Finishing

I’ve felt this every time I’ve sent a novel off, and every time I’ve avoided the feeling by jumping into the next novel right away. This time I’m taking a look at it what these big feelings are about. A few weeks in, and I’ve found some clues.

First, I miss my characters. I know lots of writers talk about this, and it is very true. We make up these people and then spend every day with them, get them to do things and learn and transform. Then we send them off into the world to fend for themselves. Surely a bit of empty nest syndrome is only natural?

In my case, my protagonist is based on a dear relative of mine, my great-aunt June, who passed away in 2014. So it’s kind of like I brought her back to life and then spent months and months with her and now she’s gone all over again.

Second, there’s the loss of identity. Writing mystery novels is a huge part of who I am. I’ve wanted to do this since I was seven years old. Other than a summer off here and there, I’ve worked consistently towards this dream of mine since 2006. Who am I if I’m not a mystery writer, even for a couple of months?

Finally, there’s the gap. The gap that every creative person faces — more of a chasm really — between concept and execution. I had a big vision for this novel when I set out. A vision that was bound only by the edges of my imagination. I had great hopes, which, by the very nature of the process, got whittled down and nailed into place and became limited, as the concept became a material thing.

Yes, I’ll keep editing and polishing and improving it, but the edges are pretty much set. It is contained. Did I manage to capture some of that vastness that captivated me enough to do this work? I hope so, but I’m not sure. And that not knowing is uncomfortable.

So far, I’ve managed to resist diving into something big as a way to avoid this discomfort. I think now I’m ready to start with something smaller. Something I can move through and pass on in weeks, rather than months and years. I’m going to start with an article on winter swimming. See if someone wants to publish it, or maybe record it myself on audio and share it for fun. And then move on.

I’ve gathered some stardust into a novel, flawed and imperfect though it is, and I hope to be able to share it with you someday. Maybe even in the not too distant future. Meantime, I hope you are gathering stones and stardust and glitter of your own and calling it done and sharing it in whatever way you do.

[This post is an excerpt from my monthly letter, which went out recently to my email list. I guess it’s like a newsletter, but I call it a letter, because to me, that’s what it is. A letter from the heart, to my readers. Some readers write back, and have for years now. We’ve got a whole thing going on. If you’d like to join us, we’d be more than happy to have you! You can sign up here. ]

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