Early in July, I sent the manuscript of Creator to my editor at InterVarsity Press. I’m not always satisfied with my books, but I’m very pleased with this one and excited to see it in print—hopefully, sometime next year.
For two months this summer, I blocked out nearly everything else to focus on writing—a rare luxury. It was wonderful. In early June, every chapter was rough and ragged. Now they’re smoothed out. There were large gaps in the argument and research, which I’ve filled in as best as I can.
There’s always a touch of harried desperation during the last phases of writing. “Can I finish this on time?” I ask, often. “Is it any good?” haunts the whole process. “Who cares anyway?” is a real question, one I ask myself as much as anyone: “Do I care anymore?” I tried to express the stress in a faux-haiku some years ago, which I titled “Deadline,” though I know real haiku don’t have titles:
piles of wrinkled prose—
so little time
Along with the desperation is more than a touch of obsession. For weeks, the book was on my mind nearly every waking hour. I guess I ate and slept, talked to my wife and kids, read a few unrelated books, mowed my lawn, went to church. All the while, at least half my brain was back at the computer. Which explains the look of vacant half-awareness in my eyes.
It may sound miserable, but desperation and obsession are what make finishing up the most delicious part of the whole process. It’s a time for sanding down seams and polishing prose, for inserting jokey puns and obscure allusions only a few readers will recognize, for discovering the mot juste as resonant as it is accurate, for (trying to) tune paragraphs till they’re taut as guitar strings. It’s when the prose takes on a jaunty life of its own, with energy to grab the reader by the lapels and drag him along to the next page.
I wish I could live in the last phase of book-writing all the time. I can’t, of course. To get there, I have to trudge through months or years of drudgery. I have to grope along in the dark, not knowing where exactly I’m headed or if I’m headed anywhere at all. I have to push through frustration with words that refuse to say what I want them to say, or won’t say it well. I get to the delicious stage only when I’ve gained some mastery of the material, when I know my own mind about the topic I’m writing about, when the pressure of a deadline focuses my attention and disciplines my writing. Perfecting a book is an Omega experience, and cannot be an Alpha one.
And then I think: How like life! You only enjoy the full range of flavors in your marriage, your kids, your church, your job after long faithfulness in one direction. Too many jump ship early, just when it’s getting good.
Don’t do it. Stick it out, and you’ll see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. In writing and in life, you can’t immanentize the eschaton, but, plugging along in hope, you’ll find the eschaton does come. When it does, it takes your breath away.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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