I also don’t do “getting over,” “throwing away,” or “forgetting.”
I still have the dress I wore to the 8th grade semi-formal, the converse all-stars I wore in high school, and mix tapes from college. I’m still super close with my best friend from pre-school. My college boyfriend is still one of my dearest friends. If I had limitless cash, I would go dig my first car — a 1987 Renault Alliance — out of the junkyard and have it rebuilt. (It wouldn’t BE in a junkyard if I had my way — after it died, it stayed in my mother’s garage for five years until she gave me an ultimatum: get rid of the Renault, or find a new family.)
I’m not a hoarder, I swear. I’m just…. loyal. A little sentimental. And I have a crazy memory that won’t let me forget who gave me that book, or how much I loved that mug when I was little, or how much I appreciated the nice thing my boss said to me fifteen years ago.
I’m sure it will come as a great shock, then, that I also don’t believe in throwing away writing ideas.
I write to figure things out, to wrestle with ideas and experiences I can’t quite make sense of, to clarify my thoughts and find closure. As the saying goes, “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?” I write about things that bother me, and things I wish I’d said at the time. I write to work through my own questions and challenge advice that no longer rings true.
The times when I can sit down and actually turn my thoughts into sentences, and wind multiple strands of thought into one cohesive piece? When I read over what I’ve written and say, yes, yes, that’s it. That is exactly it.
Those times are what make writing worth it.
Once I’ve written the thing I set out to write — captured the moment, rendered the image, worked through the question, solved the puzzle — I can let it go. Or — more accurately — it lets me go.
But until then? It sits in my mind, heavy and unanswered, with the weight of things undone. I can walk away — I can take on other projects — I can try to exorcise it by talking it through. (I once put a novel-length project to rest by telling it to a friend over dinner. We were sitting out on the patio at El Pinto in Albuquerque, and I spent half of dinner just telling this story. She loved it. After that night, I never felt the need to go back to it.)
I can’t make a list, as Deb Joanne did, of all the projects I’ve written and abandoned, because though I certainly have other projects, I’m not sure I’ve abandoned any of them yet. Walked away from, yes. Taken a break from. Given distance. Reassessed. Rethought. Reapproached.
But abandoned? Never.
For instance. Currently, I’m working on a story that began as my very first novel. The summer after I graduated from college, I lived with my mother and did almost nothing of consequence. I read books and ate apples and watched Days of Our Lives. Every night after sunset I walked the dog 2.5 miles out to a stop sign on a country highway, and 2.5 miles back into town. Around midnight, I’d sit down at the computer and type. I wrote a beginning that I loved:
For one week every summer, the Ferris Wheel is the tallest thing on the long, hot horizon. When the week’s over, and the wheel has been taken apart spoke by spoke, when the Zipper and the Tilt-O-Whirl have been packed onto the trucks that drive them from town to midwestern town, the hazy summer sky clings to the after-image of the fair. It hangs there for hours, the memory of the midway: a thin web of bars and chains etched against the tangerine sunset sky, like when you stare at lights long enough to still see them with your eyes shut, or like when Mom finally took down the picture of her and Daddy and the square on the wall behind it was a darker shade of yellow.
(I still kind of love it. I’d probably edit it, but I still kind of love it.)
I wrote and wrote, all summer long. And then I kept working on it for the next three years, until it was more than 300 pages long and nowhere near finished. The middle was muddled, the pacing was funky, and some of the writing was truly terrible.
But even though the book itself wasn’t working, I loved the characters, and I felt I hadn’t yet done them justice. They still had a story to tell, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to write it for them.
So I put it away and worked on other things. I co-authored a middle grade novel with a good friend. I wrote a bunch of awful short stories. I started working on the book that eventually became The Princesses of Iowa. I started other books too — NaNoWriMo projects, idea maps, random first chapters that didn’t go anywhere. I revised Princesses a billion times. I spent a lot of time working on what I thought would be my second published novel. I came to an impasse with it and decided we needed to take a break.
And now, ten years after I started, I’m back at work on that very first novel. It’s totally different, of course. A different character is now the protagonist, and the story arc has changed due to the POV switch. But at its heart, it’s the same story I started the summer after college, and with this one, I know it’s not going to let me go until I do it justice.
Please tell me I’m not alone! Anyone out there who can’t walk away? Anyone who broke up with a book and then came back to it?
*or maaaaaaaaaaaaaybe a hoarder. MAYBE. I just love too much, okay?
M. Molly Backes
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