process, writing life, writing process

when to give up on a story

I’m reading the novel 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (totally recommend, though I’m starting to take issue with 800+ page novels; they’re EXHAUSTING). There’s a character in it who’s an aspiring fiction writer named Tengo. He has a revelation part-way through the book. He realizes he’s never really been passionate about anything. He’s performed well in school and in work because of people’s expectations. But when those expectations are taken away, he drifts. He writes when he can, but none of his work finds real success. This changes when he ghost-writes a fantastical novella. This story itself and the process of re-writing it changes him. For the first time, he feels for the first time a passionate need to tell his own stories.

These days, I feel very much like Tengo, pre-revelation. I either don’t have the right motivation for this fiction-writing work, or I haven’t discovered it yet.

I am starting to believe the reason you start writing is not the same reason that will sustain continuous writing.

Starting a new project is joyous. There are endless options, and the world of my imagination spreads out before me like Willy Wonka’s candy garden, all glittering jewel tones and unlimited possibilities. But as soon as I start writing, I start making decisions. I prune the paradise of options, sometimes haphazardly, and sometimes I kill the best parts without knowing. One day I realize the story isn’t working. Revision is hard work. I know it’s supposed to take a lot of drafts, but I didn’t realize it would be this many.

Beginning a purposeful writing life is also joyous. I am now a Writer. Visions of solitude, tea, coffee, rainy days, and fountain pens dance in my mind. But at some point, the solitude turns lonely. The tea is gone. And the story I’ve poured so much time into is still lying there like a corpse. Twitching now and then, but mostly dead.

In both cases, what got me sat down in the chair, pen in hand, and what prompted me to choose a writer’s life, has run out.

I don’t want to write.

Does that mean I should make myself anyway? Utilize that childhood lesson to always finish what you start? After all, Neil Gaiman said that you only learn from finishing things.

Or does that mean that this novel is one giant dead end, that I’m wasting my time on it, and my sluggishness and lack of love for it is an indication that I should just move on?

I don’t know.

I’ve been listening to Frank Zappa recently. He’s got some amazing views on art, some of which I talked about in a recent post. In order to compose (create art), Zappa says,

Just Follow These Simple Instructions:

  1. Declare your intention to create a “composition.”
  2. Start a piece at some time.
  3. Cause something to happen over a period of time.
  4. End the piece at some time (or keep going, telling the audience it is a “work in progress”).
  5. Get a part-time job so you can continue to do stuff like this.

Ending a piece, finishing it now doesn’t mean you have to be finished forever. Maybe you are. But you can always decide you aren’t finished and start again.

Zappa put out over 60 albums in his lifetime. I wish I had a fraction of his carefree attitude or determination or whatever it was that constantly motivated his art.

But I’m also afraid that what I’m really experiencing is not some deep, metaphysical need for a motivation, but my inherent flakiness and tendency to be easily bored with what I’m doing. Impatience. My own insecurities in my abilities, intelligence, and vocation as a writer. Or some such toxic combination.

So I decided I had reached the end point with my novel. For three weeks I tinkered with side projects (some flash fiction, a piece involving cyborg pirates), and remembered what it felt like to enjoy the work. And then, out of the blue,


I identified an element of my novel that, whenever I try to introduce it, stagnated the story. So I cut it out, backed up, and wrote forward again. I think this may be the right (or at least a better) direction. In any case, writing new material feels exciting again. Whether that has anything to do with the story’s progress has yet to be seen.

So I guess the right time to finish a story is if you put it away and never take it out again. Give yourself permission to declare the composition finished, even if it’s not Done. It may help you to tell yourself, “I’m never touching this garbage heap of a story ever again.” Fine.Work on something else.

If  nothing in you or in the world around you calls you back to the story and you forget about it, then let it rest. You ended the piece, so it’s finished.

My novel drew me back in. So I keep writing. It’s a work in progress.

And I have a part-time job, so I can continue to do stuff like this.

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