Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Topping-out ceremonies – Michelle Lovric


A belly-excavating whine of bagpipes wrenches me from my desk. No, this isn’t Edinburgh, but Bankside on the Thames. From my window, I see that the bagpipes are announcing a topping-out ceremony on the roof of the construction site opposite.

A topping-out ceremony is an ancient ritual in the building trade. It means that the builders have reached the tallest point of construction. Topping-out is a major event in the life of a building. Sometimes they bed in a tree or a branch using a special trowel. Other times flags are involved. (In Bolivia, they bury a llama fetus in the cornerstone to mark the construction, but that’s another story). The one thing in common to all topping-out ceremonies is there’s always a party. The one that disturbed me had THREE pipers and trestles sagging under man-sized bottles of alcohol, and enough men to bellow a football chorus.

It’s always a great party. I’ve heard that a lot of builders lose morale and interest after this climactic moment. A kind of post-constructional tristesse. For after topping-out, it’s all drearily downhill: second fixes, cladding, fit-out etc.

You may say, ‘Another moaning, covetous author! What about the book launch? The cocktail party, the readings, the reviews, the congratulatory emails? Why is she complaining about topping-out ceremonies, when it is a known (if apocryphal) fact that publishing gives the best parties?’

But I’m not talking about celebrating the finished product. By the time we authors see a finished book, it’s already antique in our imaginations. We’ve let go of it a long time before. It has become the property of editors, jacket designers, sales and marketing. It has been to school, university and married a few times by the time we meet it, as a virtual stranger, in a bookshop.

‘Hello there,’ we mumble in embarrassment, ‘didn’t I used to know you when you were just an idea?’

No, we don’t need a topping-out ceremony on publication day – we need one at the point when the creative process reaches its zenith. A lot of writers, including me, think that this point is the completion of the second draft. After that, it is all filling in blanks, tidying up inconsistencies, cutting, redrafting and infiltrating the editor’s suggestions. The finishing of the second draft is the last moment at which the possible still has glimmerings, but the doable is all done.

‘Now’, I thought, listening to the bagpipes, ‘if I hadn’t been so rudely interrupted, I was just about to finish the crucial second draft of my next novel. Who is going to mark the fact? Is my editor going to set up a trestle table and call in a piper or three? Is his boss going to stop all work for the afternoon and pour the prosecco? Is my husband going to come home early from work, glowing with pride? Are we inviting the quantity surveyor, the team of architects, the structural engineer, the lighting consultant, the interior designer, the foreman, the electricians, the bricklayers, the stonemasons, the plumbers, the scaffolders, the planning consultant, the office secretary …?

No. Because, on the second draft of my own book, I do all those jobs. On my own.

And no-one except the author marks the finishing of the second draft. No topping-out ceremony. No statutory creative climax. Or afterglow. Maybe a cup of tea with the cat.

What I get instead of a topping-out ceremony is – a deadline.

A deadline means that there’s a date by which I have to stop working. What it really means is the work I hand in that day is the best I could do in that time. Unlike a jubilant topping-out ceremony, a deadline gives me dispensation for mediocrity. As in: ‘How could anyone expect me to do better than this, given the short time?’ And ‘Look at all those words I wrote in such a few months!’

See how deadly a deadline can be! It gives us a false goal. It means that don’t write the best book that is in us. We write the book that’s feasible under the terms of the contract.

No, I don’t want a deadline. I want a topping-out ceremony.

And perhaps next time I might just have one.

3 comments:

bookwitch said...

Swedish for deadline is deadline.
Swedish for topping-out ceremony is taklagsfest.

I could come!

Jayne said...

I am on the second draft of my novel, and I can see that by the end of it I will feel more like I have created a story, more so than I felt at the end of the first draft. I think a topping-out ceremony on completion of the second draft is a grand one - and I like the idea of planting a tree to commemorate it as well - payback for all the paper used in creation. Sounds a plan to me!

Stroppy Author said...

Planting a tree is wussy. I write my books on llama vellum, so I'll go for that llama foetus ceremony. [JOKING do not abuse me]

Fantastic idea, Michelle - I'll drink prosecco with you any time, any excuse. And you're so right - by the time a book comes out, it's a stranger.