How it Felt to Finish My Book
My friend Pam asked me how it felt to finish writing my book. Generally I say I finished my book when I left New York, but that isn’t exactly true. I say that because it’s easier than saying I was pretty much finished except that I didn’t have an ending.
The ending had been a problem from the start. The start had also been a problem from the start for how do you write a memoir when you never met the people who created you and don’t even know the name of one of them and how do you write the end of a memoir when you are still alive? How do you know when to stop writing? What signifies the end to a life that is still…alive?
I found a way to start by stealing. Once upon a time…That got me in the door. I kept going with the goal in mind of showing what it was like to be an adopted person trying to tell her story. For the longest time I could not write because I couldn’t figure out how to plot my story. The narrative I wanted to tell didn’t go A B C D. It stuttered. It was like a mirror after a truck drove through it.
When I left home to write You Don’t Look Adopted I let go of so much, including the hope of continuity. It wasn’t about connecting the dots. It was about naming each one and, as Joan Didion said, play it as it lays.
In graduate school this would have been labeled as meta: self-referential;writing about writing. Labels are great when you are searching for a certain spice, but when you are trying to create something, naming it as you move forward can be limiting and proscriptive. I went into my book with a great sense of not knowing, just knowing that I wasn’t going to go home until I had a work that I could call finished. It was like saying I wasn’t going to leave a bar until I finished my drink. In some ways it was so simple. At the bar you know you have finished your drink when the glass was empty. I figured I’d feel the same way with my story.
A couple of days before my time in New York was up, I found my birth father, a discovery I had labeled and put into the will never happen pile. This discovery seemed enough of a remarkable book end for me to feel the city was telling me it was okay to go.
So even though technically I did not have the concluding paragraph, I called the book done and went home.
How to end? How to end? How to end?
In schools students are often taught to conclude essays by restating their conclusions. I call this writing for morons. If someone didn’t understand your introduction and needed you to repeat it, you should have written in a way the reader got it the first time. If I leave the house for an adventure (introduction) and come back (conclusion) looking and feeling exactly the same, this was no adventure, no essay.
So this meant I could not end my book Once upon a time.
I had to think of something conclusive.
This is where I start crying. When I came back from New York, I met my daughter and her boyfriend for lunch. She’d been in New York with me just a few weeks earlier, so it wasn’t that I hadn’t seen her in a long time: it was that I was seeing her. I was living a life where I could meet my daughter and her boyfriend for lunch and bask in the bright light of their spirits. There isn’t any story there. It’s what’s tattooed on my wrist, the word my mother signed off all her correspondences to me with: love.
But that lunch didn’t feel like a broad enough umbrella to conclude a memoir. I stepped back, pulled back on the lens and looked big picture at my life, and what I saw was, of course for it’s what I always see, my mother.
I thought about what my father had learned in grief counseling after my mother died. He learned what to say to the space she used to fill, still filled: Thank you. Please forgive me. I forgive you. I love you.
And I was done.
I wrote this last bit sitting at Peet’s in Los Gatos. HBL was in town and he was sitting next to me. He’d been there for me the whole book, but this time when I emailed him sections to comment on, he was sitting right next to me.
When I sent him this last part, our stools close enough where he could have bent over and read from my screen, but habits die hard and I loved the act of emailing my work to him and waiting for the email back. This time I could watch him as he read, and when I saw his eyes fill, I knew I had it.
He smiled at me and then a woman walked in the door. “I can’t believe it’s you,” I said. She looked at me, confused. “I went to you for a massage years and years ago,” I told her. “It was when I was trying to write, and I cried and cried on your table because I had tried to write about my mom the day before.” The woman smiled. “I remember,” she said.
I’d written a story about working on a dwarf during a bike race. Months before I had been giving free massages to help build my practice, and I ended up working on this little body. Somehow we got onto the subject of mothers, and I ended up working on her shoulders for almost an hour instead of fifteen minutes. We talked about how much we loved our mothers and how much we missed them. How much we wished they had chased their dreams. How we hoped to chase our own. I tried to write about this, but writing about my mother was so complicated and confusing that I ended up just feeling guilty and bad about the daughter I’d been and the person I’d grown up to be. I felt hopeless and angry and sad. So I booked a massage and bawled as soon as the woman lay her hands on my skin.
I felt lighter after, as if I’d left the heaviness of the story behind me on the table. As I left the massage therapist’s office, I walked out onto the stairway to go down to the parking lot and I looked out at the cars and I saw the dwarf putting her groceries into the trunk. I had only seen her once in my life, and now, after crying about writing a story that focused on her, there she was again.
I swear to god writing is magical.
I took that as a sign. I decided it meant it was okay if I wrote about my life, about my mom, about all my crazy thoughts and feelings and actions. It took me years to follow through, but I did.
Now I had another sign. This woman, this massage therapist who had touched my skin as I'd cried over long-held grief I'd stored in my body and mind, was a sign my book was done.
I got to hold HBL's hands as I walked out of Peet's.
Pam, finishing my book wasn’t like breaking the tape after a long race. It wasn’t like drying off after a shower and feeling like I was ready to take on the world. I had written things that were so personal I’d only told one or two people and now, for a handful of dollars, anyone could read them. It was like I’d spent my entire life dressed because I was afraid of what was underneath, and now I was not only naked in the privacy of my own home, but at Peet’s, in my car, at my daughter’s field hockey games.
When I organized the parts into a way that made sense to me, I felt really done and so I published the book even though HBL told me I should polish it, get it really right. But I knew that if I looked at that book too closely I would burn it, and more than protect myself and stay the same, I wanted to change. I wanted to show the world that adoption as it is practiced hurts people; it hurt my parents, my brothers, me. I wanted other adoptees to see they could imitate my style which mirrors the traumatized brain, so that they too could find a way to speak their truth.
Two years ago I was still in New York, still in the first third of the book. I was working on faith and the blind hope that if I kept writing, I would finish.
I would have preferred a parade to celebrate me with money raining down from the sky instead of the awkward silence I felt when I got back to San Jose, but I realize now that silence was my own. The world, the people who knew me, were already celebrating my accomplishment. I just didn’t hear.
But I haven’t answered your question, not really: how does it feel to finish a book? Because it is you, Pam, asking this question, I know you mean how does it feel in my body?
I’ll tell you the truth:
It feels amazing. It feels like I robbed a bank and got away with it. Like I ate the whole cake and no one even noticed. I can’t believe I got to say what I said. I can’t believe I did it. I was so myself. I have space in my chest, in my guts. My muscles still are wobbly, but I’m getting stronger.
I went to the dark place, and there was so much light.