Sometimes the right thing to do with a project is to give up on it.
I recently conducted an electronic archaeological dig into my past projects. It all began with a campus meeting about the ethical no-no's of using state resources for personal gain. When our dean told us that everything on university equipment was "discoverable," a faculty member replied that if "they" tried to take his computer, he'd first wipe the hard drive. So I started wondering what I had on my own computer (not state-owned) that I'd be afraid of someone finding.
That led to a humiliating tour through my documents of the last dozen years. As I already knew, there was nothing there that would get me into trouble. Or at least, if I've done anything wrong, I didn't—and still don't—know that it was wrong. What I did find was an embarrassing buffet of unfinished and abandoned efforts.
I discovered fairly polished proposals for at least seven books that never got written. (Note the intentional, blame-avoiding use of the passive voice.) One of them had netted me a university-press contract after going through peer review, but I finally figured out I wasn't committed to doing the book and canceled the contract and gave back the advance. (Can you see me cringing?)
Another, a co-authored illustrated book, was clearly ahead of its time. Well before the Web was crowded with sites devoted to Peeps, the stunningly delicious Easter candy chicks, my co-author, a designer, and I were going to do a book called Peeps: Food or Fetish. There would be a section of ReciPeeps (do you realize how beautiful and delicious a cup of hot chocolate looks with a Peep lazily skimming its surface?); we had Peep poetry; friends took Peeps with them on world travels, presenting us with photos of Peeps at the Pyramids, Peeps at Big Ben, Peeps drinking ouzo on the Aegean. I wrote an essay called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Peeps" that had something to do with women's body images and disordered eating. My co-author's mom, a quilter, was going to quilt Peeps, and another friend planned to make (and model) a gown out of them. He said it would be divine.
Alas, when our literary agent sent out the proposal to New York publishers, a submission packet that came, of course, with packages of Peeps, we received sweet letters of rejection. Big surprise: No one wanted to publish an expensive coffee-table book about candy. But not one editor sent back the Peeps.
In my folder of old documents, I found proposals for research-based books on subjects I didn't know enough about—and, as it turned out, wasn't sufficiently motivated to learn. I found plans for books that would be of interest to no one other than my mother. I unearthed a proposal for an advice book about academic writing that would allow me to collect my columns from The Chronicle. I abandoned that project when I realized that the book wouldn't do anything more, different, or better than the many books already available on the topic.
I was surprised to discover a handful of novels—one in a complete and horrific draft, another fairly far along. I think. I couldn't read more than the first few mortifying pages. I only vaguely remembered attempting to write them.
In addition to the book ideas, I found tons of drafts of essays that I could never get to work. It was kind of like looking through high-school journals, if I'd been fool enough to save them, and wincing at the person I used to be. Did you really think you could pull that off?, I kept asking myself about my former self. At times I was impressed by my own chutzpah, but that rarely lasted more than a few seconds.
As I opened each document, flinched, and had to look away, I felt like a big fat flop. So much crap—such a hefty record of falling short, of insufficiency, of nonperformance.
Then I had to slap myself upside the head. Sure, I had a bunch of projects that had failed to launch. But I also had, in the last dozen years, published three books and seen a thick sheaf of essays and articles appear in national publications. It didn't help to flog myself for the failures. All those stalled endeavors and bad ideas were simply part of the process that got me where I needed and wanted to go, right? Right? That's what I tried to tell myself. I hoped that no one would ever get a chance to discover these documents.
Last fall I got an e-mail from an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a publisher I would have given up my first-born child for a shot at, saying that he had been on a monthlong jag of reading books about running and mine had been a highlight. Had I ever considered writing a young-adult novel about a teenage girl who decides to start running?
I had not.
Thrilled and flattered as I was, I told him I couldn't write fiction.
Nonsense, he said. Give it a try.
So I tried. I sent him pages and pages and he encouraged me and then I realized they were terrible and I started over again. Each time I began with a blank document, I had a better idea of what I wanted to do, and each time I threw away many thousands of words, I knew that while they weren't right, they were getting me closer.
Then, just before Valentine's Day, in what was perhaps the most exciting event in the history of the known world, I got a book deal based on a partial manuscript. My first readers were a handful of teenagers I'd helped with their college-application essays and a handful of editors at my dream publisher.
In the months since, I've learned that all those weird and annoying things that novelists say about their work ("I'm so interested to see what's going to happen to these characters!"; "When I write I lose myself and all sense of time!"; "Writing is fun!")—things I never believed and made fun of—were, actually, vividly, weirdly true.
I know that my experience with this book—having an editor give me an idea for a next project that, in retrospect, seems obvious but I never would have come up with on my own, and having him support and guide me all the way through—was unusual in the extreme. My agent stepped in only when it came time to negotiate the contract and got me more dough than I ever expected for doing something that was so much fun. (I had been prepared to try to turn FSG into a vanity press and offer to pay them money to publish my novel.) The editing process has been more stimulating, and more fun, than I can believe. I never understood how fiction was edited, and now I know: You and your editor share a vision and an understanding of the characters and the story, and you work together to get it right. The novel should be out next year.
At each stage I expected everything to fall apart because, well, things don't happen like this. At least not to me.
I'm not sure whether, without that reassuring novel-writing experience, I would have had the courage to go back and look at all my failures. When I did, I understood the ways in which I'd been preparing myself to take this next step. Clearly, I wanted to write a novel, even if I couldn't admit that and had repressed the memory of my previous attempts. And, just as clearly, on all those attempts, I hadn't been ready.
During my years of foundering, of trying to find a next project, of struggling to figure out who and what I wanted to be when I grew up as a writer, I realized I had taught myself a lot. The things that didn't go anywhere were like playing scales or running half-mile repeats on the track. I was building skills and acquiring tools. It's embarrassing and frustrating to see how inept I was, but it's also good to remember that I like revising. Thank God I like revising. And it's heartening to be reminded that sometimes the right thing to do with a project is to give up on it.
I guess I thought that writing would get easier, that eventually I'd have more stuff that worked out than didn't. But maybe the progress is seeing those discovered documents not as failures, but as part of a more ambitious project—steps on the way to learning how to write.