Endings & re-writing

Acclaimed author of The Last Days of Roger Federer Geoff Dyer shares his insights on how endings are a prelude to re-writing.

Acclaimed author of The Last Days of Roger Federer Geoff Dyer shares his insights on how endings are a prelude to re-writing.

This is part of our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack on Endings, with contributions from Geoff, Eva Verde and Michel Faber. Our Resources packs are generously supported by Arts Council England. Discover more here →

In films featuring the life of a fictional writer — an invented character inventing characters and stories – work on a book which began with the title and first sentence ends when, having completed the last sentence, he or she types out the two clinching words: ‘The End.’ Something similar can happen in novels about the literary life. Beth, one of many characters in Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful A View of the Harbour (1947) is a novelist. A lot has gone but in the last of its 300 pages we learn that Beth has finished her novel. ‘She wrote the last sentence, dwelt on the full stop with her pen, and then drew a little line.’ Taylor’s novel is completed with the book Beth has been writing over the course of its unfolding. Or almost: ‘“This is it,” she thought. “This is the only moment and the whole reward. The ends of the circle are brought together and tied, and in the tying of the knot is perfect bliss, a second only, before all the doubts and anxieties begin and again and other people step in.”’

And even that is probably not the end of it, not even the end, I mean of the book she has been writing. Getting to the end, even for writers whose focus is overwhelmingly on plot or content, or those like Kerouac who were committed to an ideal of spontaneity, is a prelude to revision. For some – D. H. Lawrence is an extreme example – this meant starting all over again, on another draft; at the very least it will involve going through the manuscript, making changes to the prose even if the foundations of character and structure remain more or less intact. For some writers the process of revision is almost endless. Re-writing, in other words, is writing. This, I suspect, is increasingly the case as computers and word processing have dissolved the distinction between drafts: you are incessantly revising and re-drafting, covering the tracks made yesterday – or an hour ago, or even a minute ago – as you go along. Every day’s work contains the invisible, vanished evidence of dozens of potential, unrealized drafts. And you keep revising, improving and altering until the changes become either insignificant or cancel each other out (Oscar Wilde’s gag about spending the morning taking out a comma and the afternoon putting it back in). Still, at some point it’s over, the manuscript sent off, and after a certain further point – after apologizing to editors about continuing to make changes even after you had promised that the alterations made to the first-pass proofs were absolutely the last — you’re out of time and no changes can be made. 

As it happens I recently finished a book about endings, about things, careers  and  lives coming to an end. The proofs are due back any day. I’m looking forward to seeing them, to re-entering that completed world. I will make changes but, for reasons that aren’t worth going in to now, the book has to come out at exactly 86, 400 words. The last word to be added might end up being ‘I’ or ‘the’ or ‘and’ and it could come anywhere. Or it might need to be subtracted. 

Geoff Dyer’s book The Last Days of Roger Federer will be published by Canongate in June.

Image (c) Matt Stuart 2015