On unfinished projects

I’m stuck, again. By which I mean, I am not writing. It’s not a block, exactly, but a sort of paralysis. It’s about looking at something as a Big Project, rather than just “a short piece I’m working on.” This is something that’s happened before. Every time I even think the word “novel” I seem to freeze up.

But this time is different, because I know I’m farther along into a Big Project than I’ve ever been. I’ve completed or mostly completed 5 linked stories. I see these as, down the road, a full-length novel-in-stories, or perhaps after some serious revision, a full-length novel written from multiple points of view. I have pages and pages of notes on these characters. I have done research on the time periods involved in this project. I have some books I keep in mind — and on my nightstand — as model texts, books which have something in common with the one I think I am writing, or want to write, which serve to inspire me and from which I can learn.

In my personal history of writing novels, this is a lot of progress, and I am far enough along that I have become attached to the project and the characters in a certain way. I’ve become attached to the idea of finishing this manuscript. (Perhaps that’s the problem?) And yet, despite all of this progress and work and effort, or perhaps because of it, I’m stuck, not writing.

In my attempts to continue, by which I mean, my trips to the coffee shop with my laptop that result in becoming overcaffeinated and reading through what I’ve written so far and then moving on to skimming other long-forgotten pieces on my hard drive, I stumbled upon another novel. Yep, that’s right, I opened a Word document on my hard drive and realized I had written 125 pages of another novel a couple of years ago. And then abandoned it. I remembered writing the beginning of that novel, but I’d completely forgotten I’d gotten so well into it. It’s not horrible, this half of a novel, and despite several years having gone by since I wrote it, I know what will happen next. I could write to the end, I feel. That half-novel doesn’t deserve to be just a half, is what I think.

The New York Times recently ran a piece about why writers abandon novels, which included comments by authors such as Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Junot Diaz about their failed projects. Chabon said whenever he sat down to work on what would have been his follow-up book to Mysteries of Pittsburgh, “I would feel a cold hand take hold of something inside my belly and refuse to let go. It was the Hand of Dread. I ought to have heeded its grasp.”

I have had questions about this as long as I’ve been writing. How do you know if you’re feeling the “hand of dread” because your work needs to be abandoned or because writing is hard and you’ve hit a rough spot and you want to abandon it? How do you press on when you’re not sure which project might be the winner?

That, there, is why I’m stuck. My aforementioned novel-in-stories is the book I want to write, but can’t seem to at the moment. The recently rediscovered 125-page novel beginning is a book I know I can write, but might not be the intricate literary novel I dream of writing. And discovering that 125 pages has me flustered. If I could write 125 pages and actually forget they exist, might that not also happen to the novel-in-stories-in-progress?

And then, there’s this question: Which project should I proceed with right now? I don’t want to think of those 125 pages, but I find myself working on that novel in my head. And then I’ll think about the other. All the while doing nothing on either one.

I offer this glimpse into my paralysis, because, like that NYT article, I think it’s useful. The NYT piece is ostensibly about abandoned novels, but if you read it optimistically you’ll see that it isn’t. “Sometimes a novel thought long dead can come back to life, brush the dirt off its pages, and shuffle back into an author’s career.”

Perhaps this is true of all “abandoned” writing? All writing is practice for other writing: Egan wrote a novel which she abandoned but which she later rewrote as her first published book, “Invisible Circus.” Chabon, obviously, has had success since his failed novel (an excerpt of which is now seeing some notoriety in McSweeneys, complete with his snarky commentary about it, so in a way, it’s not a complete failure, right?). Sometimes it’s helpful to write something in order to know what you don’t want to write. Or to find your voice, or play with plot and structure.

As mentioned in that NYT piece, Stephen King’s recent Under the Dome is a complete rewrite of a failed novel from 30 years ago:

“The character list kept growing, and they didn’t connect, and I just got to a point where I dropped it,” King remembered. But three decades later, a fresh shot at the concept worked: “It was like my mind was working on it underneath.”

I think about these examples and I wonder about my own work. Was the 125-page half-novel practice for the next one? Or is the novel-in-stories practice for re-writing that previously abandoned project? To me the question should not be whether or not to abandon a project, but rather what is this piece of writing practice for? And when, if not now, is the time to return to it?



6 thoughts on “On unfinished projects

  1. Thanks for your picture and the post! I have a drawer full of such projects (and then some). I can’t bring myself to delete them, and I’m even reluctant to look at them. But hopefully something (anything) will come out of it.

  2. Great, honest post, Elizabeth. I think writers get stuck because of fear and confusion–fear of failure, often, and confusion about how to handle something in the writing. I know I have gotten stuck much more in the past year, on the fourth version of my memoir, because my skills and standards are much higher. But I don’t know exactly what causes fear and confusion each time, for it varies, and don’t really know how to get out of it. If I did, I wouldn’t get stuck for long, right?

    But here’s the thing. If you look at getting stuck as writing, or at least as part of writing, then you maybe can endure it better. Being stuck is part of writing–if you are trying, on the project or another one–or even if–sorry!–you are just suffering. Quitting completely happens, I guess, but that’s different from being stuck. I have looked quitting in the eye on this book and said No.

    You may be stuck, but your blog post itself shows you are trying. You’re waiting for the muse, having failed to kick your own butt. The latter doesn’t work for me, either. Discipline may be over-rated; love is more powerful, Annie Dillard says, and I agree, but being stuck is like being in a bad fight or breakup when the causes are murky.

    One thing that has helped me is to accept the suffering. This is a basic spiritual discipline or practice that I know Mary Karr, for one, uses. Much suffering comes not from the problem but wishing you didn’t have the problem. Accept the problem, the pain–it does help me. I build it into my daily prayer or prayers. Meditation may help too, but for me what works best is, honestly, getting on my knees and saying I accept my wretched state.

    Basically you have to somehow hit your reset button. And reading can help me. Reading a lot of books and thinking, consciously and unconsciously. When I am stuck I usually can’t exercise much, but I am also sure that just getting out in nature helps, a stroll on a path or even merely sitting in a chair outside. We are meant to be out in nature, and it is healing.

    Good luck!

  3. Richard, thanks for your thoughtful comment on what was a meandering and not-fully-thought-out post. You are right; getting stuck is part of the process. I tend to make the biggest leaps in thinking about my projects when I am stuck. It is so hard to remember that when a blank page is staring at you though!

  4. Elizabeth, you’ve alluded to Zen before, and I meant to say that my “accept suffering” mantra actually originated with Buddhism, which says more like “yield.” As I say, yielding or accepting a wretched condition has, paradoxically, helped me to change it. And Mary Karr’s interview with Paris Review on her seven years of suffering through her latest memoir, Lit, is well worth reading. It’s on line, or was.

  5. Pingback: good reminders « Fog City Writer

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