Not actually today, obviously.
Elizabeth Macarthur the woman died almost 167 years ago, on 9 February 1850. She was eighty-three years old.
But today I wrote the paragraph in which Elizabeth dies, the final paragraph of the book really, and I felt strangely sad.
It’s been my job to make her come to life on the page and I’ve been working to do so for more years than I care to admit. Yet there she was, having a stroke and quietly dying at Watson’s Bay in the company of Emmeline, her youngest daughter and Dr Anderson, a long-time family friend. It was sad and I hope I can make my readers feel that same soft pang.
The other part of my sadness, though, was less easy to articulate.
For months I’ve been looking forward to reaching this point: to be able to write “and then she died. The End.” Which is not what I actually wrote, of course, but you see my point. It is The End. The end of the research (almost), the end of the first draft, the end of laying down the facts of Elizabeth’s long and interesting life. Did you know that Ludwig Leichhardt called in to Elizabeth Farm for a visit? That Charles Darwin, when he visited Sydney as a young man, dined with Elizabeth’s nephew and his family? That Matthew Flinders was a personal friend?
It’s not as if the book is anywhere near finished. I still want to write an afterword that provides a brief overview of what happened to each of Elizabeth’s surviving children, and their descendants. I still need to work back through all the comments I’ve inserted along the way, little notes to myself saying [check this fact] or [insert some words here about X and Y] or [needs a chapter break here – revise]. I still definitely need to revise and rewrite and revise some more to ensure the whole thing flows with vigour and verve. And the footnotes – OMG the footnotes – have to be checked and consolidated and made consistent and turned into endnotes and a bibliography. What else? Oh yes, then I have to source the relevant maps and images of Elizabeth and her family and their homes (and obtaining the copyright permissions is entirely my responsibility).
Then, after all that, it goes to my editor at Text who will no doubt tell me it’s unpublishable, to try harder and to rewrite the whole thing.
So writing the paragraph where Elizabeth dies was going to be, I thought, a positive milestone. An important hurdle after which I’d find myself sort of in the home stretch. And it was – is – both positive and important.
But also sad.
Up until today I was sure I would feel relieved to finish this book. But, even though I’m not finished yet, I’m no longer quite so sure.
Well, the first point is obvious – Elizabeth Macarthur didn’t die today. Rather, a milestone has been reached in bringing her to life again. Sounds to me like a reason for celebration. Though maybe not quite as big a celebration as when you get all those footnotes and re-writes sorted!
Well, she kind of died for me. But yes, a certainly a celebration point too. The footnotes – for now I’m ignoring them in the hope they’ll go away ;-)
Congratulations Michelle! A momentous achievement. Celebrate every milestone I say. What an amazing journey you have been on to get to this point.
Thanks Warren! And I know you know exactly how the journey feels…endless but also endlessly interesting.
Reading this made me cry. Powerful memories rose. I was right back there again in the same moment for me when I wrote the pages where Georgiana Molloy died. I remember standing up and walking away into the other room, tears dripping! First, there was sadness after having relived her end so vividly in words. Then relief (finally reaching the end of the story, even though much more work to do) and fear (also from reaching the end and suddenly thinking of the unknown that was still ahead – would I be up to what might be asked of me next?) and also loss (loss of the thing that had defined my waking hours for years, and loss of the person who’d felt like my secret companion in all those hours alone, writing. She and I were in it together, for more than 10 years…
Thanks for sharing this, Michelle. I’m quite sure you’ll enjoy the next part of the adventure. The editing can be challenging for lots of reasons but working with someone else who’s as interested as you are in the book is great! The bit after that where you end up with a real book that sits on a shelf in a bookshop goes by in a joyful, magical blur. Then, for me, there came another feeling of loss, bigger than the first, that took longer to fade. I suddenly realised on my first visit to a bookshop that was stocking my book, and seeing a customer leave with a bag, that the story and all the work and all those words belonged to other people now, people I’d never know or meet. Georgiana had left home. I felt almost bereaved, even though what was happening was the thing I’d always wanted most of all – for her story to be read widely. I felt quite lost for a few months.
But I had no idea then that there was still so much more ahead. It’s almost two years now since the first edition was published and I still receive wonderful messages from readers who tell me how much it’s meant to them to read GM’s story and how they’ve enjoyed the way I decided to tell it. People I meet often thank me and open their hearts. They tell me their own personal stories that connect with hers in some way. It’s an amazing privilege and I’m so glad for every hour of research and writing and editing that made it happen.
So don’t worry- the best feeling of all is still to come!
Oh Bernice – what a wonderful, generous, beautiful comment. I can’t begin to thank you enough. You’ve really captured it. It definitely IS an unexpected loss, isn’t it?
And thanks too for the insightful heads-up about what is yet to come. Wow – how do people do this without online friends?!
How lovely to see Bernice Barry’s thoughtful response here (Hi, Bernice, from one of those happy readers you’ve never met https://anzlitlovers.com/2016/04/05/georgiana-molloy-the-mind-that-shines-by-bernice-barry/). I am sure she is right that there are ‘best feelings’ still to come.
I was telling my husband about your book just a day or two ago, and how much I was looking forward to reading it so I am very pleased indeed to hear you have reached this milestone!
Thanks Lisa. I suspect the happiness about reaching the milestone will soon overtake the sadness ;-) But I’m afraid it will be at least 12-18 months before publication…
I can wait:)
And hello back at you, Lisa! I’m sure we’ll cross paths somewhere one day.
I can wait, too!
Truman Copote said finishing a book is like going out to your yard and shooting your child! He has a rough way of saying it but apparently it is a sentiment felt by even the most experienced writers……
Nonetheless congratulations on finishing this excellent work. i can’t wait to read it. Just reading your blog paragraph made me very sentimental!! Bravo!!!
Hmm, Truman Capote didn’t have kids of his own, did he… But yes, I see his point! And just to be very clear – NOT FINISHED YET! Looking forward to seeing you, Clemmie!
[…] meant I also got to catch up with Michelle from Adventures in Biography whose (first) book is nearly done, and with Lisa (ANZLL) and spouse, for the first time, for a pleasant lunch and to exchange books. […]
A wonderful post Michelle about a moment in time along the writing journey. Mid-point milestones are worth celebrating even if momentarily and even if with somewhat mixed emotions. So, hearty congratulations! on reaching this point and thank you for sharing it. Your journey is inspiring!
Thanks Gail – it’s lovely that you’re coming along for the ride (pun fully intended).
Those of you who are wondering about the pun should try Gail’s fantastic blog at https://abike4allseasons.com/