Monthly Archives: October 2014

Confessions of a serial new-story writer

Why we like to start new projects, and never finish them

carved sad jack-o-lantern pumpkins

I have too many stories — I can’t take it anymore! — Cropped CC image “sad pumpkins” courtesy of Sharyn Morrow on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I ran into a friend of mine from a class at my writer’s workshop this past week. We asked each other how the writing was going. I told him I seemed to be suffering from serial project monogamy. I hop from one prose piece to the next, sampling each one’s atmosphere, its personality, intelligence, and sense of humor. I’m on the lookout for The One. I will find it one day soon, and all my woes will evaporate. She will be like Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, and I will be set for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, I’m not quite sure this is The One…

I never quite finish a project; instead, I jump from beginning one to beginning another to beginning another.

I feel as though I’m avoiding something. I’ve had a lot of good ideas, I told my writing friend, but I hadn’t actually finished any writing (other than blog posts) in months.

He made a wry face when I mentioned my predicament, which leads me to believe that I’m not the only one who’s faced this situation.

Why do we serially start new stories that we don’t finish?

Why do we do this? A Google search under “writing problems beginning new projects never finishing” led me to over 366 million results. UNC Chapel Hill even has a webpage “handout” breaking down this “common writer’s ailment.” What drives us to pick up one new piece of writing after another, starting something new, instead of finishing what we’ve already begun?

If your answer is, “I’m procrastinating,” you’re right and you still haven’t gotten to the bottom of the matter.

I think our reasons for procrastinating boil own into two basic categories. One side is ruled by Fear. The other side is the Kid’s Mind, always wanting new toys.

Fear

We think the new writing is better than the old writing. Occasionally, we might be right about this one. However, we use this justification much more often than is strictly accurate. “New is better” smells like fear about the old being crap.

The piece can never be BAD if it’s not finished, right? We only judge the complete. The finished work. We don’t do judgments on drafts, because we know they’re just that: drafts. Works-in-progress. A possibility of what might become. Fear of failure or fear of success—whichever is true, these can only occur when the piece is finished, which we are trying at all costs to avoid.

Perfectionism. We fear our work is never good enough (and “editing” has a horribly amorphous quality to it; in theory, editing can go on forever).

We don’t want to deal with the work. New writing is easier because we know so little about the piece yet. We can dive in anytime and pick any spot in the story to address. Whether we’ve looked at any notes or not for the past three weeks doesn’t matter. By contrast, if I let the older stuff sit for a while and then want to work on it, I have to reacquaint myself with the material before progressing. Not only the facts — the who, what, where, and why — also the voice I was using at the time I put down the pen or tucked away my computer file. In effect, starting a new piece is our reward for being lazy!

Playtime!

Let’s face it, the new and shiny is always more interesting than the toy that we’ve had for a while. We know all the rough corners on that old toy, and what it will and won’t do. The new toy is filled with possibility. We haven’t exhausted our imaginations in play.

New projects are fresh. They have no history, and we don’t have any relationship baggage. We’re not carrying around pre-conceived notions, or memories of arguments past. Our interaction is uncomplicated. We are strangers saying hello at the train station, smiling at each other for the first time. Every aspect of the process is fun!

We are literary tourists. We have itchy, wandering feet, we are the proverbial rolling stone, and we like new vistas.

The illusion of productivity. Starting new writing makes us feel like we are doing something. Hey, I’ve started something new! Rather than plodding through the same old, well-visited terrain, we’ve begun a new itinerary, a new list. Leaving for a vacation is much more fun than coming home. On the way home, we are thinking about what we need to do when we arrive: open the windows, water the plants, unpack the suitcases. On the way out, we are leaving our responsibilities behind.

… and then what?

In the end, the reason underlying all reasons is our resistance to what happens next.

We don’t know what that is, and human beings generally dislike uncertainty. When we finish, then what? Does it suck? Do I have to send it somewhere now? Will it get published? Will anyone care?

Possibly not. So why do I do it? I look no further than my copy of Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. My piece may not have a Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, but, as Natalie says,

“If you are a writer, write.”

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Are you a serial project monogamist? What is the most wild way you have ever tried to break the cycle?

You Must Submit! (to doing your art)

Yes, we’ve got a theme here

lego figure under a glass

Trapped by art! CC image Help! courtesy of fisserman on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

For those of you who saw my last post about submitting (sending out our work to be judged… I mean, for consideration to be published or made public), the topic clearly has more to offer. For one, we didn’t talk about actually making the art.

(Yes, I do things backwards sometimes.)

We think about our art in relation to other people. We want to share our work (at some point). We want to know what other people think (nice things). We think about it being finished.

Every time I think about submitting my work, I feel a mental nod coming on. Yes, that’s a good idea. I should. I want to.

After all, that’s how people are going to read it, right?

Right.

Followed by more irrefutable logic: I will never be published [by anyone other than myself] if I don’t ever submit my work.

Once I sit down to actually, physically take on the task of submission, a lot changes.

I’m not nodding anymore. I’m fighting.

Resistance, in fact, sweeps over me like a hurricane. The winds lash me, the rains drench me, I’m afraid I’m about to be swept away. The best I can do is hunker down and wait for the storm to subside. Then I walk around gingerly, on tip toe, for a while. I don’t want to rouse the demons yet again.

Sound familiar?

Submitting and writing are not the same thing

Art first needs to be made. This submission concept is really frou-frou, like frosting on brownies. Before the frosting can go anywhere, we need to bake brownies. Then we can agonize about what flavor frosting we want.

The act of making the piece, or even editing the piece, is separate from the submission storm, although the storm does bring up writing debris.

The making brings up its own resistance.

Say I am not even thinking about making a submission. I am working on a first draft. Better yet, I’ve just had an idea, and am running down the track after my idea, trying to determine what species it is, what habitat it likes, whether the idea wants the shade or a river, what it likes to eat, and if it prefers the pen or the computer. Even here, I have to deal with a storm of resistance. And dealing with resistance here is much more of a dicey proposition than at the submission stage. If I wrestle too much at the source, I’ll be distracted with my struggle while the idea gets away.

Hop-hop-hop. Nothing doing. Do you know this dance?

Resistance is everywhere

The siren voices of resistance at the writing stage are the usual menagerie of rabid self-judgments. A selection: This is awful. Where is this going? You can’t say that… So-and-so [famous, published and wealthy] would never say that. So-and-so is better than you.  That’s why So-and-so is published, and you’re not.

Sometimes the eye-rolling pedant in me gets a word in edgewise. Example: I also won’t get published if I never WRITE anything until the end…

Storm voice: Maybe that’s the way it should be. No one wants to read drivel.

Then there is the distraction ploy. For example: I’m hungry. My ankle itches. Listen, I haven’t done laundry in a week and I’m running out of socks.

Finally, lest we forget, there is resistance posing as the voice of logic. Actually, this isn’t the best time to be doing this (writing). You should prep for that meeting. Or wash your hair. This isn’t a quiet spot. You’re going to be interrupted. What a waste of your flow! You’ll get started and then disturbed right at the crucial moment. What about going somewhere else? You should choose a quieter time of day. You should choose a more secluded location. You should sit in a chair that doesn’t turn you into the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Dear Reader, do you recognize this mess? Do you feel familiar with the scenarios I have just sketched for you? Fear not — I have a diagnosis.  The sickness is this:

You aren’t submitting (to your art).
I am not submitting (to my art).

And we must, or we’re never going to be happy. Screw fame, publication, and wealth. Let’s back up to the first step. We’re never going to get out of this loony bin the way we’re going. We are bouncing off the walls: look at us!

This is important— no matter what else we do, we must always, always, always submit to our art.

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What happens when you don’t submit?