Clear Your Decks

December 16, 2021 § 12 Comments

Not everything we start is worth finishing.

The practice of writing is also practice. And practice/rehearsal/training involves mistakes, screw-ups, wrong paths, poor choices and loss of interest. Dancers don’t save videos of every rehearsal. Artists throw away plenty of sketches. Yet writers often work and rework a piece to death, hoping the next draft will finally be the one that gets published, sometimes stopping ourselves from writing something new, because we have to clean our writing plate before we can get up from the table.

Most published writers have at least one manuscript in a drawer. Maybe they’ll come back to it one day, but more likely they won’t. It was a learning book.

As writers, we’re sold on the value of perseverance. Just do another draft. Just keep working. Send another query, another submission. One day you’ll break through. Sit down and finish. Now. Today. This week. In fifteen-minute increments while waiting for carpool, or in one wild coffee-fueled weekend.

I will get to the end of this sentence, this paragraph, this page. This essay. This book.

But there’s value in quitting, too.

Maybe next writing session is a good time to pull out something you gave up in despair and take another look at it with a cold editorial eye. Perhaps there’s one sentence in there worth saving. Perhaps there’s a whole new piece based on the third paragraph. Maybe you’ll get lucky and the whole thing’s nowhere near as bad as you thought when you walked away. If there’s truly nothing you can find in there worth working on, you have two options: send it to a friend and ask if there’s anything they think is worth working on; or toss it.

Seriously.

Hit delete. Crumple up the pages for recycling. Burn the notebook. Put it in a file marked “Dormant.” Clear your decks and make room for something else you want to write. Get the unfinishable crap off your desk and call it practice. Be grateful you learned what that piece taught you and move on.

In your 2022 writing practice, dig out the pieces taking up your brain space and give them one more try. Be a beautiful free-spirited artist, exploring every possible avenue for this idea that’s not quite working. Be a tortured soul contemplating the horror of the page not living up to what’s in your head. And then sit your ass back down and write to the end of the page. Set aside a day, or a week, or whatever interval works for you to finish your shit. Pick up a piece and decide if you want it or not. If you want it, finish it. See what it feels like to do whatever it takes, to revise or seek help or break it apart and rebuild…or let it go and move onto something else you want to finish.

Clear the space for new work by letting go of the hundredweights of half-pages that once seemed like a good idea. Trust that in your head, in your heart, in your skill, there are more ideas—hundreds, thousands of them. Some of them are half-finished on the page; some of them are hiding under the weight of that thing you feel obligated to finish. Let it go.

Sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. Don’t settle for half-finished.

___________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Join her in January for This Is the Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal-Setting for Your 2022 Writing Life, in which she will not even once say “write every day.” More info/register here.

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§ 12 Responses to Clear Your Decks

  • Yes, sometimes we need to let things go and move on.

    • Not give up, thank you, Allison, but get on with writing. I think we are too precious about the writing and forget that we are supposed to love the process, not merely the product of writing.

      Focussing on product is what gets us stuck. And anyway, if we are not loving the writing, why do it? Ursula K. Le Guin used to warn people away from writing by suggesting that if you have to beat yourself up to do it, find something else. Really, if you suffer overmuch from so-called “writer’s block” or have to flog yourself into writing, why bother? There are plenty of other things to do. The poet suggested that words should come as on a powerful wind, or perhaps not at all? Doubting is understandable, but when doubt heralds consistently seeing writing as a chore, maybe try going for a walk?

  • abigail thomas says:

    I’m just about to read this, but can you get that young man to clear mine?

  • stacyeholden says:

    “there’s value in quitting, too…” Simple but not so easy. As a quitter, it was heartbreaking to let a writing project go. But I put it all in a box, and it’s there waiting for me if and when the time is right. But for now, as you say, I am looking to see what is “hiding under the weight of that thing you feel obligated to finish.”

    • Even better: great novels have been written while an author was avoiding a bigger project. Eliot’s Silas Marner is my favorite example. She was avoiding work on Romola (the one you have never read).

  • […] my characteristic stubbornness (I’m a Taurus, after all), I’m mulling over Allison K. Williams’s latest advice as posted over on the Brevity blog, because I think it could be useful for me as the new year […]

  • rachaelhanel says:

    Great advice. This makes me want to print out all my half-finished essays, put them in a binder and figure out what the hell to do with that in 2022. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • abigail Thomas says:

    yes, except there is something to be said for the piece that won’t let go of you. There is still the figuring out why, what is it about this that still tugs at you. And you can write a hundred versions of it before you realize what it was, and why it had you so obsessed. And anything that keeps me writing is something I’m grateful for. But you are certainly right, that there are things to let go of. God knows I’ve got boxes full of those.

  • Simply the best. Thank you.

  • […] You don’t have to rethink the whole project or make a huge plan or set aside two weeks when your decks are clear (let me just pencil that in for […]

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