The Monster at the End of the Manuscript

Blame it on the narrative inquiry course I took in the summer, or the year-end, but I’m feeling retrospective, meta even. (Or maybe, this is just another permutation of my overdeveloped ability to procrastinate? Either way,) I want to write about writing …

I’ve been methodically wading through the homestretch of my novel for the better part of a year now. I use the word wading because these last few miles have turned out to be more of a bog than the smooth, downhill trek I had always envisioned. My boots get stuck in scenes. I get turned around in the mist. Sometimes I lose entire sequences in the mud. Just yesterday, I realized I’m missing a side B plotline that was always in my brain but never fully materialized on the screen. All of this to say that I’ve been thinking alot about writing, writing this novel in particular, and seeing more of the process with each resolute trudge. There’s something ahead in the mist and it is terrifying – an ending, not just of the story but of something far more visceral.

I started what would become my novel, DT, on a drizzly night in Vancouver in 2012. Originally, it was just a scene, not even a vignette really – an idea of a female mercenary waiting out in the rain, a moment in text. I do these a lot. I suppose it’s akin to going for a jog or doing a quick sketch, like a brief workout for my writing. A year later, I’d return to that little alley scene. I was working at UFG at the time and I’d come up with a writing mantra partially inspired by an old friend and partially by Mario (another old friend): Forward progress. The idea was to just keep writing, not to get mired in editing or doubt – to gallop with reckless abandon towards “the end” (even though I didn’t really know what “the end” actually entailed), to leap over writing blocks and unknowns in a single bound, to just finish the damn manuscript.914OVJ32d4L

I’ve come to recognize though, as each sentence brings me closer and closer to “the end” that I’m a little anxious about finishing the novel. There’s the sort of anxieties one might expect: the prospect of editing, the ever-present is it actually any good? … (etc.) but those are fairly easy dragons to slay in comparison to the real monster lurking at the end of the manuscript. Finishing DT, I’ve come to realize, is a closing – a closure – of a chaotic era of my life, a period of upheaval future Melissa historians will come to call “the shit buffet”.

Closure is one of those things our brains yearn for, like sets of three or parabolic arcs. When shows or movies end in a cliffhanger and we shake our fists at the sky, it is the lack of closure that boils our blood. Closure is also a word I’ve heard a lot over the course of my life, usually from hospital counsellors. Griefspeak. Closure is this state you’re supposed to reach in the grieving process, the winstate of loss. (Grief is not a linear process, but that’s another rant.) Oddly enough though, the first entry of closure that my brain defaults to comes from Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”. In comic book theory, you see, closure is the brain’s leap of faith from one panel to the next. Closure, in this sense, is how we make meaning out of a sequence of disparate images.

DT has been one of the few constants of the past seven years. (Anyone reading this most likely knows the details of the shit buffet, so I’ll spare them here. Suffice to say, shit happened, frequently and with abandon.) There were long stretches where I did not write at all, and then moments of mad key clacking as the next chapter or two materialized in my brain. There is a narrative about control I could tell here: how when I often had no control over the things happening in my life, I still always had control of DT – as the shaper and former of all things within the novel, this was an insulation from the entropy of my reality. I don’t really want to write that story though.

The thing about writing DT for me, even now, is the joy it brings. Lately, yes, that joy runs in parallel with a distinct tension – a friction even, as though each sentence I write is me dragging the novel, word by word, through the bog. But joy is the only way I can describe it, hopefully without veering too much into the Hallmark section … Worldbuilding, character development, writing my way out of corners I previously wrote myself into – it’s all still exciting in spite of everything that’s happened in the past seven years. And that’s kind of amazing, right? That life can be so savagely tragic and yet the simple act of making words appear on a screen in sequence can still hold light and hope.

The last night that my mother was here, in this place, I read her the entirety of my manuscript (such as it was) and then told her how it was going to end. She’s the only other person who knows all the twists and turns. The memory of that night is simultaneously one of my most heartening and yet one of my most painful. In spite of what I knew was happening, to share with her this creation of mine was a happy moment that stands in opposition against the sorrow of that last night.

I suppose that’s the best way to sum up what writing DT has meant to me these past few years. It’s never been an escape, but a lifeboat so that I might survive the storm. Soon, it will be gone, and that’s a little scary – that unknown. What will I cling to if another storm hits?

I lived in crisis-mode for the better part of four years and have spent the past three (re)learning how to just live again. I’m still learning. I still frequently look out into the horizon for dark clouds that might become another storm. Even when no clouds are in sight, some remnant of my crisis brain still tells me clear skies don’t last forever. Maybe it’s that voice I’m trying to slay as I trudge my way through to the end of the manuscript.

DT will still be there, of course, just not the writing of it. There will be editing (much editing) to be done. I look at my manuscript right now; there are entire scenes missing, some with point form annotation, others only catalogued in my brain presently. Then there’s all the retconning I’ve done throughout … Even after I smooth out all of that, whoever I manage to wrangle as a beta-reader may very well come back to me to say it’s a convoluted mess. From a certain standpoint, I think I’d be okay with such an assessment because what has my life been for the past seven years but a convoluted mess? I have lived in the world of DT for so long I will probably require a third party to help me sort it all out. Actually, I look forward to explaining it all to someone. 

I’m closing in on the last twenty thousand words. That monster is looming ever closer. I can hear it squishing in the mud through the mist just ahead. I’m like Bilbo in the corridor of Smaug’s lair; my moment of bravery is here. The funny thing is I’ve known how the novel ends for quite some time now. The climax is a little bit Dungeons & Dragons, and a lot Die Hard, with just a pinch of The Fugitive thrown in for good measure. So, it’s not the story perse that’s propelled me toward this lurking foe, but the writing. Each word is a step towards a gaping maw of unknown. I must choose to face the dragon now or turn around and slink back whence I came. This moment, not the monster, is the final boss of the shit buffet. 

I choose to meet the monster.

Finishing DT feels like leaping to the next panel of my life. So long shit buffet. Hello, unknown.

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