I’ve been working on a book of creative nonfiction for five years. I’ve produced some good material from that work, a couple of pieces that could stand on their own that were published in anthologies. The story of which I’m proudest comes from the hours – and the thousands and thousands of words – I’ve put into this particular book. It’s also, incidentally, the shortest story I’ve ever published.
But the book has just never come together for me. I’ve scrapped it and started from scratch more times than I’d care to admit. I’ve approached it from different angles, groped toward different themes, played with wildly different plotlines, perspectives, and even toyed with genre. In five years, nothing has felt right.
In grad school, I remember talking with another writer friend about a book that was published after twelve years of work. We were incredulous. Twelve years? How does someone spend over a decade writing a single book? What was the author doing? Chiseling the words, letter by letter, into a rock face?
And here I sit on my electronic pile of drafts. Five years’ worth of work, and I feel no closer to finishing than I did four and a half years ago.
So when is it time to lay a story down?
I’ve been working these five years under three motivations. First, I genuinely like the story. Forgive my impudence, but I think it’s an important story. Second, mentors and the writing community I trust have confirmed it’s a good and important story. More than that, they’ve expressed complete faith in my ability to sell the manuscript – once I finish it – to a large publishing house. I’ve had authors I love and respect go out on a limb for me to make connections and open doors for my story. How could I let them down? Third, I’m a big believer in finishing what you start. Even when I began to suspect this story wasn’t ready to be written at this stage in my life, I thought, Just finish a draft. Just write the whole thing, start to finish, even if it’s bad, even if I hate it, even if I have to password protect it to keep anyone from reading it. Ever. And there I’ve been stuck. Do you know how hard it is to find motivation to work on a manuscript you’ve already decided is not only a lost cause, but, you tell yourself, is going to be a massive disappointment to the people who cheered for you in the first place?
And running through all the complications I’ve experienced with this manuscript, is my constant anxiety over how my words might hurt others. We nonfictionists don’t have the luxury of soothing our loved ones’ worries by telling them (whether it’s true or not) everything in the book is made up. Nonfictionists, even of the creative kind, deal in The Truth.
My Truth was big, and my Truth was hurtful.
And in spite of all the assurances that I own everything that has happened to me (and I believe that), I had to weigh that with the damage my Truth might cause. And at this point in my life, the potential damage outweighs the importance of the story.
So today I’ve officially laid five years of work to rest. It’s not gone, but lying in password-protected stasis, waiting for a moment when, perhaps, I might find the right time to make it all come together in the end.
Time to tackle the novel that’s been knocking around in my brain for months, screaming to be let out.