Someone smarter than me (And probably richer too, so why should I bother to look up his name?) once said, “Novels are never finished. They are only abandoned.”
Unfortunately for us tortured penmonkeys, that does not mean that we can just give up in the middle of writing our book and expect someone to pay actual money for it. What it does mean is, “Your book is never going to be perfect, and you can only do so much revising, so eventually you’re going to have to learn to be happy with what you have and just put it out there, bucko.”
It’s a reality that every writer who ever plans to publish anything must face. And earlier this month it stared me straight in the eyes.
I was putting the finished touches on The Mulch Pile. I had done multiple edits on my own, in addition to farming out proofreading work to people nice enough to do it for free. (Speaking of which, huge thanks to Creste Meyer and Ellie Soderstrom for volunteering to help me make my work as pristine as possible.)
I was coming into the home stretch, reading through the story one last time, applying some final edits, when I was struck with a stunning realization:
The Mulch Pile I had written nearly two years ago was not the story I would have written today.
Okay, so maybe it should have been all that stunning. But it was somewhat disconcerting. After all that hard work, writing, rewriting, tweaking, rewriting some more…all of that and yet somehow looking back over it my current writer self was saying, “I could have done this better.”
It’s possible that’s just wishful thinking. It’s possible that everything I’ve learned in the past two years wouldn’t have improved the story of The Mulch Pile at all. But somehow I doubt it. I feel in my heart that if I had it to do over again, I could have created a better, more focused story and crafted a plot with better structure.
And yet The Mulch Pile went live a week later, largely unchanged.
Why? Is it because I’m a lazy bum, and I’m sick and tired of looking at this thing, obsessing over every little word, every turn of phrase and every hidden symbolic clue that no one’s likely to pick up on anyway?
Well, yes. But also, it’s because I’m not the writer I used to be.
The writer I used to be wrote The Mulch Pile. And it’s a good story. Not perfect mind you, but good. And if I let the writer that I am get pulled into constantly trying to improve and rewrite, I could get bogged down with this one story for the rest of my life.
Because the truth is, I’m getting better. I’ve been getting better over those two intervening years, and I plan to continue getting better over the years to come. The writer I am has his own stories to write. And the writer I’m going to be may very well look back on the stuff I’m doing today, and think, “I could have done it better.”
But he won’t. He won’t, because he won’t have time. He’ll be working on his own projects. Because life is about motion. It’s about moving forward.
The Mulch Pile was the best story the writer I was could have written. And with that I am satisfied.
How about the rest of you? Ever have to let go of one story so that you could move on to another? Share your tale of abandonment in the comments. I’d love to hear about it.
That’s a great quote – from what I understand one of the many variations of Da Vinci’s original that said the same about art.
I’ve noticed that retrospective blase about my work, too. Except I always attributed it to my insatiable need for novelty. The first inception of an idea, that very first time you’ve stumbled upon a profound truth to be translated into an arrangement of words no one has yet used, can sometimes be a near rapturous experience. Then you read it, pore over it, edit it, analyze its every single little itty bitty nook and cranny until there is no possible further discovery. I never know exactly when, just that the newness wears off in my own mind and instead of the wonder I’m left with, “meh.”
But although it isn’t new to us anymore, it’s still new to the reader. And the wealth of those little symbolic clues that we take such great care to saturate the stories with, the ones we worry might never even be noticed — I LOVE those! Of course, I want them to be uncovered but I don’t think any single person peels back every layer. There’s something satisfying about that; knowing all that’s hidden, then sitting back and waiting to see who picks out what, and not fretting that someone, or everyone, misses a detail.
Absolutely! I just did it today…abandoned a story I originally wrote six months ago. After dozens of drafts, I came to the conclusion that the problem was not the storyline…it was solid. The problem is that I am not the same writer that wrote that first draft, and that second draft, and heaven forbid…that 23rd draft. So, I gave it my best shot as a final edit, and let it fly into the world for all to read. And you know what…it was liberating. I can now focus on my next projects, and get them completed before my voice grows stronger than it is now. After all, how can my voice improve unless I exercise it?
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