On the Deep Disquiet of Finishing Your Book
Fernando Pessoa, Joy Williams, and the gap between writing and publishing
Last month I received an email that began with the words “Hello, I’m your German translator.” I sat up straight. I’ve always harbored a secret desire to be appreciated by the German people. “At the moment I am working on High Dive,” the translator wrote, “which is a very fascinating and satisfying task, but, as you can probably imagine, not always an easy one …” I clicked on the Word file attached.
One of the first queries in the translator’s long list of queries was about a line of dialogue. A character in my novel, in a scene set in Northern Ireland in 1979, says, “Does he have a surname, this Cal character, or is it a Cher ball-tickler sorta situation?” The translator was understandably nonplussed:
“Here, I must admit, I don’t understand a thing. The Cher-reference (if it’s that) makes it sound gay, somehow, but please help me!”
I began crafting a careful response. “I can see that you’re in a tricky situation,” I wrote. “There are lots of 70s and 80s English and Irish colloquialisms in my novel. Also: this particular character is fond of saying things that sound significant but which at essence have very little meaning at all. So actually the lack of meaning is important here, in terms of power dynamic, and also of course it’s his weird way of asking if this guy named Cal has a surname, or whether he goes by only Cal, the same way the once-popular American singer and actress known for her distinctive contralto vocals and voluminous hair—Cher—went by one name, which was Cher.”
I stared at my explanation. “Distinctive contralto” felt like a false note. I deleted it. I injected some friendly exclamation marks to soften the correspondence. I moved onto the translator’s next query, and then the next, and then the next, noticing that the translator’s pleas—the light outside was fading; I was on page two of her document—had begun to harden into a tone of rueful resignation. One character in High Dive says of her school-teacher, a Mr. Easemoth, that it was “pretty important to him to feel he was misunderstood.” The translator had written of this line:
“Sorry, German is sometimes a very precise language, and I have about ten possibilities for the ‘misunderstood’. Please elaborate a little on these two sentences and on Mr. Easemoth.”
Ten possibilities for misunderstood! For Mr. Easemoth, who is given perhaps ten lines of dialogue in the whole novel! I started thinking of that thing about the Inuit having fifty billion words for “snow.”
I had begun to sweat. It was real to me now. After years of wandering lost through my own novel, staring at the sentences, building them, living with the characters, my book was no longer my book. It belonged to other people. U.S. readers, too, might cry “Help me!” They would cry it in English, my native language, an apparently imprecise one (who knew?). I had desired publication. I had longed for it. I still longed for it. But there was nonetheless a fresh flush of panic in knowing my novel was gone. It would be praised or criticized or ignored. It was being bound and jacketed and carried out into the world of misunderstandings.
* * * *
The space between writing and publication is a strange one, its own little tragicomedy of insecurities and longings, of coffee drunk and coffee spilled, of days spent in excitement and days spent in regret and days spent entirely in one’s pajamas. The ground here is littered with your abandoned ideas and sentences, the paragraphs you worked on for months and eventually cut, the commas you can no longer move around. Also: crumbs. So many crumbs. From toast. From muffins. From all manner of baked goods to get you through the pre-sunrise writing hours. After the sheer joy and luck of the book deal there begins this peculiar, self-indulgent period of unease. You have got what you always wanted—publication is imminent—but you are more afraid for the future of your book than ever before.
“A writer isn’t supposed to make friends with his writing,” the writer Joy Williams says, but of course he or she almost always does. It’s a complicated friendship, full of loathing and love, and losing your worst/best friend to other people is an unsettling experience. To be deeply interested in something, as Geoff Dyer writes in Out of Sheer Rage, his extraordinary book about trying to finish an ordinary book, “is to be involved in what is essentially a stressful relationship with that thing, to suffer anxiety on its behalf.”
In times of anxiety I go to the library. There are lots of books on how to write, and lots of books on how to publish, but I’ve spent the last few weeks looking for a book with a title like How To Get Through The Period Between Finishing A Book and Seeing It In A Bookstore Without Losing Your Entire Grip on Reality. I have failed to find it. Instead I’ve found The Artist’s Way. I’ve found The Mother Tongue. I’ve read On Writing and On Writing Well, the former much better than the latter, and I’ve flicked through books that lay out 50 essential strategies for writerly success, and 100 unmissable instructions for the writing life, and also many magazines devoted to offering advice on the business of writing words and publishing words and making a lot of money (ha) from publishing words. My favorite of these books of advice is probably Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing The Creative Genius Within. I like it because it reminds me that even talented writers are capable of making book-length mistakes.
Then I picked up The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. I guess it was the final word in the title that caught my eye. Maybe we’re all drawn to outward expressions of the things we privately feel?
* * * *
The Book of Disquiet isn’t really a book about writing, or not only that, and in fact it isn’t even really a book. It’s a collection of fragments that resist completion—asides, aphorisms, and murmurings arranged in a saleable form. It is also a collection of pages resistant to the idea of a single, stable authorship; different parts have been attributed over the years to different writers, all of whom both are and are not Fernando Pessoa. “Heteronyms,” he called them. He didn’t like the word “pseudonyms.” Perhaps he thought it captured nothing of the independent intellectual life of the writer-alter-egos he had imagined. In the end Pessoa decided the overall author of his book was probably his “semi-heteronym” Bernardo Soares.
The Book of Disquiet does not seek to offer advice. It does not seek to comfort or console. It’s a very sad book, I think—a book drenched in nostalgia. I looked up that word just now and found it comes from nostos (return home) and algos (pain), and that seems right, for The Book of Disquiet, if I had to try and define it in a line, is a book about the pain of trying and failing to find a home in life and language.
“For a long time,” Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet, “I haven’t recorded any impressions; I don’t think, therefore I don’t exist. I’ve forgotten who I am.” I underlined these sentences. I have underlined something on almost every page of the book. I underline Pessoa’s thoughts not because I understand them, but because I want to understand them better. I feel I recognize something of the clouded truth of them, the blush and pull of what Pessoa may be saying, the sense of embarrassed loss. I hear him saying that when a writer isn’t writing, he or she falls into forgetting—a forgetting of his or her most creative self. Writing is a process of remembering who we are, Pessoa might be suggesting—a process of trying to track ourselves down. At first that sounded wrong to me, the idea that writing is ultimately an act of memory, for it seemed to exclude a more romantic notion of writing as a form of fantasizing. I wondered if perhaps the translation was at fault, and I remembered again that I owed Germany an email, but the more I thought about it, the alternative definitions of writing—as a form of memory, as a form of fantasy—seemed entirely compatible. We all know by now that the past is as much a work of imagination as the future. We re-form. We invent. We chase after moments that have already fled. We can never quite recapture the passion within the passion, nor the grief within the grief, but we make a version we can live with, shape, touch with color, and we start to exist within its architecture.
In text 353 of The Book of Disquiet, as arranged in the edition translated and edited by Richard Zenith, one of several English versions available, a narrator watches a tram moving through a city street and thinks:
One would like not so much to have the moment stand still, as it does for solemn landscapes or for the moon when it so peacefully shines on the river, but to have a different life, so that this moment could have a different flavor, more akin to one’s self […] At times like these the right thing would be never to arrive at the human reality for which our lives are destined.
The idea of art-making as a refuge from reality has become a cliché. But a cliché often becomes a cliché through the repeated force of being true. Something about the above lines by Pessoa makes the idea fresh for me again. It is not that when we finish writing a book we want time to stand still. Quite the opposite: we long, most of us who write, for a sense of forward motion—for acclaim, affirmation, encouragement. But we want these things while also, simultaneously, wanting to avoid “arriv[ing] at the human reality” of having finished something, of having lost it, of the book no longer being ours—of it being available to be misunderstood. We want to hover in the fog of incompletion. We want to publish and not to publish. We want to be translated and we don’t want to be translated. We want to hide in the dark while also stepping into the limelight. We are children, we want it all, we cannot be reasoned with. The calmer voice in our head is the voice of sense, yet the words it offers sound too simple to be true: You got a publishing deal in the US after eight years of hard work? Time, my friend, to relax.
Books of writing advice tend to be books of easy answers. The Book of Disquiet is a book of unsettling questions. It is a book that contemplates the nature of things that a writer “can’t obtain,” such as “passions and emotions lost among more visible kinds of achievement.” And this idea of trying to reach for things we can’t ever really have, and then putting the results of our reaching or over-reaching into the pages of a book—a “visible kind of achievement,” or of failure—puts me in mind again of the difference between writing and publishing. One is a form of unfinished dreaming. The other revolves around an object with a barcode on its back. Both processes are valuable, but there is a gap between them, and into this gap comes restless sweating, and sometimes ingratitude, and often a loss of confidence and perspective—this feeling that falls, I think, within Fernando Pessoa’s definition of disquiet.
When attending a public reading at a local bookstore, have you ever glanced at the author’s own copy of their book? The sentences are so often covered in pencil marks. The finished book may never be finished to the writer. The words, like life, ask to be continually revised, but publication rarely allows for that.
* * * *
Joy Williams was born in 1944, nine years after Fernando Pessoa died, and a piece of hers I’ve been re-reading alongside The Book of Disquiet is a 1991 essay titled “Uncanny the Singing that Comes from Certain Husks.”
“It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole,” Williams’s essay begins. “But who cares if the writer is not whole? Of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well.” There’s something “unwholesome and self-destructive” about the entire process of writing a book, she argues, because writing moves us towards the breaking apart of the very solitude that it has nurtured:
Writers when they’re writing live in a spooky, clamorous silence, a state somewhat like the advanced stages of prayer but without prayer’s calming benefits […] [The writer] cherishes the mystery, he cares for it like a fugitive in his cabin, his cave. He doesn’t want to talk it into giving itself up. He would never turn it in to the authorities, the mass mind.
Until, of course, he or she publishes the work. Williams knows as well as anyone that an audience is an important part of art. Most of us do not write for the spider that lives in the bottom drawer of our desk. In that sense, what we’ve been longing for from the start is a kind of abandonment.
A writer’s finished work, Williams says, is “a stranger” to him or her— it “shuns” the writer a little,“for the writer is really something of a fool, so engaged in his disengagement, so self-conscious, so eager to serve something greater, which is the writing. Or—” here comes the quietly devastating conclusion—“which could be the writing if only the writer is good enough.”
Three days ago, another email arrived from my heroic German translator. I found the email comic and touching and also inspiring. Her restless search for the most precise means of expressing imprecision reminds me what art-making should be about. She is determined to make the German edition of my book good enough. She is still wondering exactly what I meant when I wrote that it was important for my character “to feel he was misunderstood”:
Just to clarify the misunderstood-problem:
I have to decide between (at least):
nicht verstanden (not understood)
unverstanden (a child may feel unverstanden by his/her parents, which also means not understood, but on a more fundamental level, as a person)
missverstanden or falsch verstanden (wrongly interpreted)
verkannt (underestimated, misjudged)
See the problem?
* * * *
When I read Joy Williams, or The Book of Disquiet, or the work of any other writer I love, I feel like Pessoa feels in fragment 350 of his book. My mind “gets confounded … It’s as if I were watching a magic show and knew I was being tricked, but couldn’t work out the technique, or mechanism, behind the trick.” I read their lines. I see the problem. I feel a wonderment at how eloquently the problem is presented. The productive magic of the prose does not lie in the traditional idea of the writer making the reader suspend disbelief. Williams and Pessoa let disbelief and doubt show through in their sentences. They are honest about the fear that their work, when published, will be misunderstood, and honest also about the fear—so much worse?—that their work will be understood too well and be found, in the end, to be lacking.
“I’m astounded whenever I finish something,” Pessoa writes in his book that isn’t a book. “Astounded and distracted […] I begin because I don’t have the strength to think; I finish because I don’t have the courage to quit. This book is my cowardice.”
The only near-solution Pessoa found to his own disquiet seems to have been to write another fragment, to become another self, to re-exercise his own cowardice on the page again and again and acknowledge the absurdity of it. He and Joy Williams offer, rather than answers, a confusion of further personal questions, and in doing so they give the rest of us an invitation to respond. They leave us in no doubt that writing can be a beautiful and conflicted act—a private process through which we try, even with our most ridiculous lines, to reach an understanding with others.