Cary Tennis and Dannelle Morton. 2017. Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done.New Tarcher Perigere Book.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
The most pressing question that I have for authors that present at writers’ clubs functions is simple: how do you cope with the emotional side of writing? Feelings of despair, shame, and professional inadequacy haunt most full-time writers, regardless of their professional standing. Crafting words into books daunts authors because of the length and loneliness of task. Is it any wonder that two-thirds of those that enter a doctor of philosophy program never finish primarily because of the requirement that a dissertation must be written and approved. Among economists, the ability to complete a research project and publish the results is known aptly as the “killer instinct,” because the prize awaits only those that finish.
In their book,Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done, Cary Tennis and Dannelle Morton (T&M) write:
“The Finishing School method doesn’t require you to change, to become a better person who is more organized, more disciplined, and has life under control. It asks only that you take few simple steps. This book first covers obstacles to finishing, both emotional and practical ones.”(xii)
Obstacles to Writing
What are these obstacles? From their interviews with frustrated authors, T&M list the top six obstacles to completing writing projects:
- “DOUBT: ‘I think I can’t.’
- SHAME: ‘I am ashamed of not finishing and too ashamed to finish.’
- YEARNING: ‘Does my dream of being a writer get in the way of writing?’
- FEAR: ‘What am I actually afraid of?’
- JUDGMENT: ‘Whose judgment do I fear, and how can I proceed in spite of it?’ and
- ARROGANCE: ‘How does arrogance blind me to what must be done?’”(4-5).
Roughly half the book (part 1 of 5) is focused on examining these obstacles in detail.
I could see myself wandering around in these pages. For example, in their chapters about yearning, T&M write:
“People who are creative must take advantage of inspiration so we are allowed to change our plans. But there is inspiration, and there is running off to the office supply store.”(46)
For me, creativity takes a hit anytime something in my office is out of order or a little task calls my name. And, yes, I have made unnecessary trips to the office supply store to get blue inks pens, tape, file folders that only might be needed.
The Winchester Mystery Novel
For the writer of the never-ending novel, T&M draws our attention to the story of Sarah Winchester, widow of the inventor of the Winchester repeating rifle, who was haunted by the ghosts of the victims of her husband’s rifle. In 1884, a psychic told her that as long as she continued adding rooms to her house, the ghosts would never catch up to her. Construction on the house continued until her death in 1922. (83-84)
Building on this story, T&M offer six signs that you may be writing the “Winchester mystery novel”:
- “You don’t know how the book ends…
- You have been working on it for more than five years…
- You have no outline…
- You cannot express the nugget of the book in a sentence or two. In other words, you have no pitch [no elevator speech]…
- You are rewriting and perfecting scenes rather than moving forward with the story…
- There are lots of secondary characters with long backstories.”(91-93)
Although I write nonfiction books, several of these points bring back less than fond memories. I have, for example, struggled with how to end properly and found it difficult until I crafted a good elevator speech—the thirty second summary that you offer when a career-influencer joins you on the morning elevator ride.
So what is the Finishing School method? T&M focus on developing a non-judgmental environment in which writers can commit themselves to keeping each other on tracking and writing. This involves a buddy system where, in place of a critique partner, you have a “creative” partner whose only task is to encourage you to set writing goals, keep track of them, and continuing writing.
One of the most interesting sections of this book arises in tracking John Steinbeck’s progress, recorded in his diary in 1938, as he struggled to finish his novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck set a goal of writing two thousand words daily and finished his first draft in five months. In spite of his obvious talent and acclaim, he struggled with“the same self-doubt, feelings of futility, and a frenzy to get some solitude that dogs any writer, experienced or not.”(214)
Cary Tennis and Dannelle Morton’sFinishing School addresses an important challenge facing most full-time authors: how to stay on track and finish. As writers, we struggle to finish even the best of our writing projects out of shame, shame, and fear. Writers’ burnout arises more from emotions running wild than from the exhaustion caused by hard work. Finishing Schoolprovides useful advice, is easy to read, and provides comfort that you need not suffer alone.
Tennis and Morton: Write to Complete
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