Let Me Finish

Computers cursed writers with a potentially infinite revision process. Using handwritten drafts during NaNoWriMo brought me home.

Alexander Chee

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Last Sunday night on Twitter I ran across one of those Tweets that tells you about yourself. By which I mean, I learned something I thought was a deeply private humiliation is in fact a glass mountain many other writers try to climb: the practice of using determined aspirational file names (“FinalFinal.v.3.docx”) to try to announce to ourselves that this time — really, really this time — we are going to finish that novel.

The ego wants the novel to be done before the novel is done, as I learned eventually, after 8 or so years of typing these file names on at least 250 drafts of my novel. I had begun the practice of renaming drafts if major changes occurred back during the writing of my first novel, but that was not a good plan for a second novel, once that novel grew longer, eventually three times the size of that first novel. In 2008, for example, determined to finish, I first began using “queen.final.” By 2013, typing “final” on any of the files brought down waves of scalding self-mockery. By 2015, when I was really finishing, I stopped using “final.” By then it seemed, if anything, more like a sign I would not finish.

The novel doesn’t care what the ego wants. You can type “final” into a file name as many times as you want and the end will not come until you’ve figured the novel out. Stamping your foot under a half blank screen won’t help. I was struggling with the technology involved in being a writer as much as I was struggling with the writing itself. The existential question for those of us writing on word processing software: How do you finish a book when you could always fix something?

I am a writer who began on a typewriter in 1984, and by 1986, first began using a computer owned by my only friend who could afford one. The rest of us otherwise used the computers in the computer center.

Me in 1986, in front of one of the first personal computers. A liter of Coke is on the desk.
Me at Wesleyan University in 1986. Photo by Tim Orr.

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Alexander Chee

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.