I’ve been working on a piece for a while now. I’ve been thinking about it, writing it, revising it, having friends give me feedback, etc. But I feel like no matter how many times I come back to it, or how many different ways I try to write it, something doesn’t seem to be working. I’m afraid that it might be a lost cause, which is painful because it seemed like such a good idea. How do you know when to abandon a piece? How can I tell if I just need to step away from the piece for a little bit, or if it’s not worth coming back to?
Banging my Head Against the Keyboard
Dear Banging My Head Against the Keyboard,
I know the feeling! And I’m afraid there isn’t a good way to know, in my experience, if a piece is truly, unequivocally dead, or merely (to borrow from Miracle Max) “mostly dead.” I’ve been dancing with some stories and longer ideas for over a decade, and haven’t been able to tell what’s what with them completely, no matter how long I let them languish.
But, I do have some ideas. Perhaps they will be helpful.
First, stepping away from a piece need not be abandoning it. If it helps you to think of them as totally separate acts, then go for that interpretation. When I am sitting with a piece that just isn’t working, some time away often does seem to help. And the nice thing about it is that you can step away for as long as you like. Perhaps after a few weeks or a month you feel refreshed and ready to take another swing at it. During that break, you may even come up with a new idea that helps it come together better.
Or perhaps you never feel called to revisit the piece and move onto completely new projects. That’s okay. Letting go of an idea can be immensely freeing. It is your work, and yours alone, and only you can decide what is worthy of your attention. And just because a piece is not completed does not make the process of working on it not valuable. You’ve no doubt learned things from this process, and those lessons, those small joys, and colossal struggles, cannot be taken away no matter what happens.
I have another thought: submit the damn thing. Send it places. See if anyone likes it. See if you get a personalized rejection letter. See if someone wants to publish it, or wants to work with you on editing it. You never know. One of the biggest joys to me of publishing a piece, even in a publication with a tiny readership, is that once a story has a home like that, I feel like I no longer have to think about it. It is “finished” in a way that is outside my control, and that frees my brain up for other things.
Even if it is not accepted, there may be some value in letting it exist outside of yourself, having it be exposed to an audience that isn’t close to you. See if it has legs. See how far it can travel. You can always keep tinkering if you like.
The glorious thing about abandoning a piece of writing is that it doesn’t disappear. You can pick it back up again whenever you like, or never again, and either choice is fine. As long as you keep writing, keep reading, keep working, keep experimenting, you are living the writing life. And that is, as Julie Schumacher puts it in Dear Committee Members, “despite its horrors, possibly one of the few sorts of lives worth living at all.”
I imagine this may not be the practical advice sought, but when it comes to stories, practicality can only take us so far.