The Real Reason Books Aren't Finished

I don’t know how I’d count it, but I would bet there are at least twice as many books that have been started as have been finished. Books are not abandoned because the writer is lazy. Nor are they abandoned because the writer didn’t have enough time – though that is usually the reason a writer will give. Nor are they abandoned because the writer lacks talent, or intelligence, or imagination. Strangely, the overwhelming majority of books are abandoned for the very same reason they can be so pleasurable to write. Whether I am writing fiction or non-fiction, writing is like slipping into a kind of dream. I must forget about the world in which I am actually living and enter the world of the story I would like to tell. The more completely I forget, the more pleasurable the writing becomes. Within this dream, ideas come to me that I had not planned, ideas that change the course of the story. The surprises the dream provides are interesting to me in much the same way I enjoy being surprised by stories someone else has written.

And then the day’s writing is done, and I emerge from the dream back into the world I know as reality. I have occasionally asked, “What just happened? Where did those surprising ideas come from? Will more surprising ideas come tomorrow?” Because if I’m honest, I must admit that what happened within the dream felt like collaboration. I did not make those ideas, they came to me, and to understand that difference is to understand the source of what is called inspiration.

I have known no better feeling in my life, nothing easier, nothing more effortless or interesting or comforting than when I have acted on inspiration. And yet I cannot command that inspiration any more than I can really command another person. I can only invite it, and wait, and listen, and trust that it will arrive. Which it always does – if I wait, and listen, and trust. Those are the rules.

And that is the reason most books don’t get finished. Writing is an act of trust, not chopping wood. Yes, I must put my butt in the chair every day if I’m going to finish a book, but once I’m in that chair I must trust that what happened the day before will happen again. Nothing happens until I trust it will happen. This experience defies in many ways the laws of what I otherwise think of as reality, the real world where I buy groceries and pay bills, a world this dream is supposed to support.

It is easy to disbelieve in my own dream. It is easy to call a good day’s work luck, to doubt the arrival of whatever Muse provides a given day’s inspiration. Worse yet, the feeling of trying to write without inspiration is as uncomfortable as writing with it is effortless. In the throes of doubt and empty pages, the dream seems exactly that – a mirage of memory and hope. And so books are abandoned, the dream exchanged for the reality we can see and touch and smell, a reality where water always flows when you open a spigot.

There is comfort in that world. Its rules seem so dependable: gravity goes down and numbers add up. But even with all its governing laws, I cannot live there happily if I do not trust – in other people, in myself, and in the future, which remains an unwritten page. And so I head back to my desk, to practice what I came to learn, and to open what I had closed when I feared reality could not be as inspiring as I had dreamt it.


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion.

"A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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