I finished writing a novel yesterday. One would think these words would be followed by a string of slap-happy emoticons, or at least an exclamation point. One would think I should be celebrating, drinking fruity cocktails on a plane to Vegas or something along those lines. But alas, I’m not feeling much like exclamation points or fruity cocktails. Since fixing the last comma, spell-checking, and running my final word count (74,324) I’ve been feeling rather down. Partly it’s the feeling that the novel could still use work. (Until now, I never really understood Randall Jarrell’s definition of a novel as “A prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it.”) And partly it’s the fear of peddling my sweat-and-blood on the open market. But what’s really got me down is the thought that it’s over. After spending much of the past five years in a magical world of my own creation, I can’t go back.
Not sure where else to turn, I went to the internet, that vast enabler of hypochondriasis, and discovered that I am not alone in my struggle. Reflecting on his National Novel Writing Month experience, Jamie Grove described the condition thusly: “You’ve just spent days, weeks, months (even years) working through the pain and triumph of your story. The characters you created are no longer just ideas or names, they are family, friends, and lovers. They are a part of you, as inseparable from you as your own face. Yet, the story must end… The characters exit. The audience leaves the house. A single light shines on the empty stage. As silence descends, you are left alone in the theater of your mind.” Mystery writer Vickie Britton comforts recently-finished novelists with this nugget of wisdom: “The sadness you may be experiencing is justified. It is a natural part of letting go. Even though it may be a happy experience to finish or publish a book, along with the sense of accomplishment may be feelings of anxiety and lack of a goal or purpose.”
A number of other novel-writing bloggers link post-novel depression to postpartum depression. Such comparisons are inevitably hyperbolic. The completion of a novel is nowhere near as momentous as the birth of a child (though a novel usually has a longer gestation period) nor is it accompanied with massive physiological change. But in some ways, the pain and anxiety of separation is similar. I wouldn’t expect post-novel depression to make it into DSM V. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t even list postpartum depression as a distinct condition. Without validation from the mental health establishment how are we to understand the sadness that accompanies the completion of a novel or any large creative project? In his essay “Why I Write” George Orwell observed: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Perhaps our sadness is that demon clamoring for a new project.