Sometimes, posts, articles, opinion pieces—ideas for novels, stories—go nowhere. You keep on putting words down on paper—or screen—but they don’t really connect. There is no spine—no blood. They are stitches in an inanimate rag doll that, no matter what you do, will not come to life.
When that happens, I think the idea is not yet finished incubating. It’s not ripe, not baked.
This is draft three of today’s post. Draft one ate itself. Draft two started out strong. But in the end, had neither legs nor heart.
Draft three, to be frank, is not turning out much batter. I’m coming at it sideways. I’m starting to tell the story by talking about how some stories don’t want to be told. Aren’t ready to be told.
My advice as an occasional professional writing instructor in such cases is to—move on. Accept that right now, this is a rag doll. Throw it away or put it in that drawer (or file folder). Move on to something else, anything else.
But sometimes, an untold story stands in the way of all the other stories waiting to be told.
Does that make sense?
I think this story—it’s not going to come out in this third draft either—is such a story.
I’ve been in this situation before, with bigger work. After the flood, when I carried a novel inside me but I thought I was supposed to write a memoir about the flood and trauma. Was it a year, then, of false starts? And then, finally, the novel, in bits and pieces, out of order. But all there, all out. Even when it was done and sold, I thought I had left so much untold—and I thought, again, that I was supposed to write another story about the flood. But I wasn’t—I was supposed to write about an artist who couldn’t see colour, another novel, fiction that told the true story better than a memoir could. That one took months of fake starts, three near-complete first drafts thrown out, so many attempts to come at the story sideways, before it finally came, and I was able to move on to other work.
So now I know how to write around the story that isn’t yet ready to come. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Success in Circuit lies.” I explore its themes and problems in indirect ways, in other work. It’s a way of working on other pieces while the untold story demands that you give it all your attention.
“Hush, beloved,” I coo to it. “This is all about you. Don’t you see? Everything I write, think do these days? It’s all about you. Everything.”
I tell students and other writers to not anthropomorphize their work. To not think of their stories, novels as their babies. That way lies madness, because of the publication process involves many, many people telling you that your babies are stupid and ugly, totally useless, nobody wants—also, have you thought about loping off your child’s right leg and sticking it in its left ear?
I don’t think of my work, while I’m working on it or once it’s finished, as my progeny.
But I do, while immersed in it, think of it as my lover. I woo it. It seduces me. We experience great joy and misery together. We drown in each other, cannot exist without each other—all is bliss, even the shitty, bad parts have a perverse joy to them.
Then the work is done—some satisfaction—and then… I’m done, and the work is done with me too. It has moved on to being the beloved of readers, and I have moved on to the next idea, the next story…
(This is what makes submitting, promoting, marketing, all of that so hard. It’s like pimping an ex-lover. “Was really into them at one time. Can’t really remember why anymore. Um. Fuck. Let me think. What was it about them that stopped my breath, made my heart pound, soaked my panties? Um… Any chance we could talk about my current flame, my current WIP?”)
We’ve moved on, the flame has burned out, the mutual passion is gone… but that doesn’t diminish the fact that when I was in the work, it was everything to me.
Tell the truth at a slant.
Closer. Not quite there yet, but closer.