To Finish or Bail?

parachuteWhen do you bail out on a story? That’s not an easy decision for yourself, and even harder when someone asks for  your opinion. A couple of days ago, one of my writing buddies sent me an essay she’d planned to post on her blog, but wasn’t sure about. “Is this too boring? Should I post it?”

I knew she’d struggled with that piece and put a lot of heart in it, but after a quick read, my answer was “No. Do not post this. It actually is boring, and here’s why.” Along with my reasons, framed as suggestions future stories and essays, I included the following personal experience:

By interesting coincidence, yesterday I asked a friend to read a story of mine. I'd worked for ages on that story that I thought was deep, meaningful, and well-crafted. A true masterpiece. My friend’s assessment was blunt: “This needs a lot of work. You need to start with the end and you need to add more detail here, here, here (basically everywhere) and develop the character (me) more. I can't tell if you're narrating from now or then, and you don't give me enough ... blah, blah, blah.” He neglected to say what he liked, though I'm sure there were a couple of things.

My friend hit every one of those nails squarely on the head. 

Now I face a decision about whether to continue working on the story or bail. Either is legitimate. I've enjoyed the project so far. But the expanded detail I agree with him that it needs calls for more exposure than I care to dare. Besides, my memory is hazy, and if I flesh it out, it will cross the line into fiction. Does that matter? Where are the boundaries? Actually, I may switch to third person, forget about facts, and morph it to fiction. I might. Or not.

So I ask myself,

  • "Why am I writing this?
  • Who am I writing it for?
  • What am I trying to achieve?"

When I got totally honest with myself, my answers to these questions weren’t quite what I expected, and gave me good reason to back off. Writing this story helped me sort out a few thoughts, and that was valuable, but the world will turn just as well without it.

By my standards, I see now that it’s not appropriate for public dissemination. But I’m glad that I shared it with one person. I did think it was amazing, but from his remarks I learned that before it will work for the world at large, I must open the doors to more nuance of experience.

Why the huge disconnect? I had failed to understand the true breadth of the chasm between what women take for granted and what men understand about women. That’s hardly a surprise, but I doubt a female friend would have caught it so fully.

That’s a big deal and worth exploring. But finishing and publishing this particular story will not add one straw to that stack of understanding. It’s time to move on.

Here’s the bottom line:

All stories deserve to be written, but not every story needs or deserves to be finished or shared.

I wrote about this topic a couple of years ago in a post, “Piles of Unfinished Stories.” In that post I refer to the pile of painting scraps my mother left behind as well as my own growing pile of unfinished stories.

More recently I was heartened to read a post on Cate Russell-Cole’s CommuniCate blog sharing a rosy outlook on the growing publishing glut. In the post she shares this poignant point: “If you interpret success as achieving payment or recognition of some sort, be aware that there are both benefits and risks in judging your success by outside acknowledgement. Research into creativity suggests that in many cases, working for money, accolades and another’s vision, can dampen your creative spirit.” (Italics mine.)

So, break free from reader expectations as well as your own. Write your heart out for the sheer joy of writing. Try new things. Explore and relive. Like your journal content, some will be fit for others to read, some will be for your own pleasure and edification.

Write now: write a story about something secret and juicy, for your eyes only. Ramp it up, vamp it up. Write things that scorch the page. As you edit, ponder other ways to look at the situation and see what you can learn. You may decide later that it’s worth sharing, at least with a writing buddy or two. But give yourself permission to bail before you start writing. Enjoy the experience. Feel the wind under your wings.


Karen Walker said...

Brilliant, brilliant post, Sharon. I've asked myself these questions several times with my current project and the answer is overwhelming to keep going even with the hard work of rewrites. You are so wise, my friend.

Herm said...

Now I must reconcile this post with the ones that encouraged and gave tips on how to write through and not shy away from writing the tough story. . . . Okay, I've given it some thought. I agree in Kenny's summation. You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away... I have written several stories I'd avoided for years. I felt the joy of success when I finished even though I shared with very few. Another unfinished story I looked at again today, I've decided to trash it and I feel some pleasure in that also. Ta Dah!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Karen, you know your purpose and I salute your persistence in keeping it firmly in mind. You accept input from others and do the work to make it right. Your story will gleam like satin when it's finally done. Bravo!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Herm, I'm so glad you got this message sorted out. I don't mean to give anyone whiplash. I still do advocate finishing stories the best we can. But over nearly twenty years of practicing various forms of life writing, I'm becoming increasingly aware that the primary value of writing is for ourselves. Documenting for others matters. Entertaining or enlightening others is noble. Learning about self? Incomparable.

Thanks for the comments that may clear some of the mist for others.