In last week’s episode of The Habit Weekly, I wrote about how you know when a writing project is finished and it’s time to send it out into the world. The long and short: Think of your writing as an act of hospitality, as an act of service to your reader. You can tinker with a piece of writing indefinitely, but eventually you reach a point where more tinkering won’t translate into more blessing for your reader. That’s when it’s time to open the door and invite the reader to come on in.
Sometimes, however, you realize that you aren’t going to be able to finish a piece of writing; you just have to abandon it, at least for a while—the story you aren’t ready to write after all, the hot take that doesn’t fare so well in the cool light of reason, the essay idea that turns out to be nothing more than a Twitter post.
There is no shame in acknowledging that an idea wasn’t as brilliant as you first thought it was. You’ve got to give yourself permission to hold the end result loosely. You have to be willing to wade into a half-conceived story and hope that it takes shape as you write. You have to be willing to write essays in which you explore questions that you don’t already know all the answers to. It’s important, in other words, that you not always begin with the end in mind (or at least too firmly in mind). The magic, when it happens, tends to happen after you’ve started writing. Something takes over that is smarter than you are…except when it doesn’t
When you begin without the end in mind, you’re taking a risk. Sometimes the seed of an idea sprouts and grows, like Jack’s beanstalk, to dizzying heights of brilliance, imagination, excitement, even danger. Sometimes the beanstalk droops before it makes it to the first rung of the trellis. Sometimes the seed doesn’t sprout at all. If the results were guaranteed, everybody would be a writer.
I don’t have any clear guidelines to tell you how to tell it’s time to abandon an idea that isn’t working. I’m not excusing you from the struggle of pushing through the hard parts of the process. But I suspect that somebody who’s reading this is keeping a white-knuckle grip on a story or essay or book that just isn’t going to happen right now. You don’t want to be a quitter; I commend your spirit. But I hope you’ll at least consider the possibility that you’re quitting on other stories or essays or books that aren’t getting written because you’re holding too tightly to a project that you aren’t in a position to finish. I guess I should frame this as an “I” statement: I have been known to perseverate over impossible projects because, as painful as that perseveration was, it was still easier than actually writing.
If you’re thinking it may be time to put aside a project without finishing it, here are some things to consider:
- There’s nothing irrevocable about putting a project down. If you want to pick it up later, pick it up later. You’re putting it down not with a quitter’s spirit (hopefully), but with the expectation that you can now pick another project up.
- A failed piece of writing doesn’t make you a failed writer. If you are stretching yourself, trying new things, experimenting with interesting ideas that you don’t already have a full grasp of, you will sometimes fail. That’s just part of the deal. On the other hand, if you choose not to stretch yourself, you will only ever be mediocre. If you’re doing this right, you will sometimes write things that just aren’t fixable. One of the most important skills of a “real” writer is to shake off that failure and go write something else.
- Nothing is wasted. Everything you write contributes to your growth as a writer. I know it’s painful to let go of something you’ve worked hard on, or an idea that you thought was going to be brilliant. But there’s always more where that came from. The more you exercise your creative muscles, the stronger they’ll grow.
You probably know of Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing consultant and draconian de-clutterer. One of her tricks for decluttering is to tell each item “thank you” before you throw it away, “so you can mark the end of your relationship with the item and release it without guilt.” If it helps, you might do something similar with that project you need to put aside. Tell it “Thank you for your service.” That work wasn’t wasted. It did you good, even if you’re not sure what good it did you.
But maybe don’t Marie Kondo it completely. Save it some place where you can get to it later. You never know…