Laura Elizabeth Woollett on the often hidden emotional punch of farewelling a long-term project.
I know the tears are coming before I write the final words, just as I’ve known what the final words will be, long before I can truly call them an ending. Beautiful words. The most beautiful I’ve written? Maybe. Surely, the most painful.
On the evening of Sunday, June 11, kneeling on the carpet in front of the whirring space heater, I finish The Novel and immediately bawl my eyes out.
The bawling makes sense. The Novel is a tragedy, dealing with a tragic historical event – Jonestown – and the times and people that gave rise to it. But it goes further than that.
120,000 words. Two-and-a-half years. Innumerable hours of reading, planning, dreaming, lost sleep, missed parties, looped Spotify playlists, bad posture, boredom, guilt, agony, ecstasy, conversations with myself and other people – living, dead, and imaginary. Labour; the kind that only love can justify.
When I stop crying, I record everything I’ve written that day. The recording lasts 18 minutes, 34 seconds. I walk into the kitchen and tell my boyfriend what I’ve done. He hugs me, is proud of me, lets me eat spoonfuls of mashed potato from the stovetop.
I open the wine. Drink straight from the bottle. Then I fetch my coat and headphones.
It’s winter and after 8pm. The park is deserted, except for a guy in the middle of the oval, doing something with a blinking light—photography? Stargazing?
I walk in revolutions around the dark oval, listening to my own voice reading my own words, and I know in an undeniable way that they’re good.
The pain crystallises.
The similes come easily. It’s like a breakup. Like having a vital organ removed. Like losing a religion. Like giving birth, then handing my baby over for adoption. Like kicking a drug habit, and feeling the hours roll out, the walls close in.
None of this is to say I’m not happy to be done. After all, I’ve been working on The Novel a long time, long enough. I’ve been working to a deadline, and working hard to meet it. I’ve been wanting The Novel out of me, out in the world, a separate entity. And yet…
Over social media, I brag; that’s what social media’s for, right? At the launches and openings I now have all the time in the world to attend, I’m more mordant:
“I feel dead inside,” I tell friends and acquaintances I haven’t seen in months. “…I don’t know what to do with myself.”
But of course, there are things to do. Sleep more than four hours a night. Clean my room. Do my taxes. Work more shifts at my day-job. Learn Indonesian. Restring that autoharp I bought off Gumtree last year, enamored of all things ’70s. Read books that aren’t for research. Be kind, present, interesting…The list goes on.
I try to do the things, and more. I remove my Jonestown books from their privileged place on my desk. I unhang the corkboard and, unable to replace the images I’ve tacked there for inspiration, wedge it between my desk and the wall. I change the wallpaper on my laptop from an aerial view of Jonestown to something neutral and pretty. Out of sight, out of mind.
Except, I can’t get over the feeling that there’s somewhere else my mind should be.
My urge to return to The Novel feels both perilous and perverse, like digging up the bones of someone I’ve murdered, polishing them up, and burying them again. I polish, but that’s not what I’m really here for. I’m here because I’m haunted. Because nowhere else feels like home. Because I don’t know how to move on.
There are songs I listened to hundreds, maybe thousands of times, while working on The Novel. Songs I’ve devised scenes to; accessed moods and revelations to; nostalgia for times I wasn’t even alive for; songs so thick with association, it’s like a movie screening in my head. I keep listening, and can’t say if what I hope for most is to reanimate the dead or desensitise myself.
The spirits stir, obligingly. They move in colour, speak words. Their visitations are brief, and predictable. My world is no longer their world.
Nobody speaks of creation as a cause for grief. To create is a blessing, a triumph to be celebrated. Anything less seems like ingratitude, self-sabotage, hubris. We’re not supposed to mourn the fruits of our labour.
Yet I can’t be the only one who’s felt this, I’m sure, just as I’m sure the grief is real, and in that sense, vital. But what to do about it?
The clichés abound. Don’t fight it. Take it one day at a time. Take comfort in the small things, things like writing this article. Know that the next thing I write may not be as big or important as The Novel, but it will inevitably be a thing, a thing that didn’t always exist.
Look. To the sky, the birds, the trees. The seasons, the mists, the voids, the valleys. Look, and feel what I can.
Banner image: Toshiyuki IMAI, Flickr
Header image: Enki22, Flickr
Laura Elizabeth Woollett
Laura Elizabeth Woollett is the author of The Wood of Suicides (2014) and The Love of a Bad Man (2016). Her novel Beautiful Revolutionary will be released by Scribe in 2018. She lives in Melbourne.