In 2015, I started writing a book.
This was a little over a year after I had experienced a seemingly endless string of unfortunate circumstances. I made the decision — and I’m not too self-conscious to say it was a brave one at the time — to start writing a fictional book dealing with the feelings I had been associating with my life in recent years.
Writing about 85 percent of that book was actually a life-changing experience for me. It helped me process the things I had gone through and allowed me to abandon many of the grievances and grudges I had been holding onto for so long. It was kind of like therapy. No one ever tells you that having the freedom to kill off fictional characters counts as therapy, but it does. Right?
But what about the other 15 percent of the book? You might be wondering. Was that part extremely unhelpful and should never have been written?
Well, no. Because you see, I never wrote the final 15 percent. I never technically finished the book.
(The crowd gasps. In the distance, something explodes. Everyone panics and starts running in circles. There are fires everywhere. Sirens drown out all other noise.)
I’m pretty confident every writer has at least one unfinished project on their literal or figurative hard drive somewhere. It happens to all of us for different reasons.
What doesn’t happen to everyone — but what does happen to many, even if they don’t realize it — is what happened to me: I gave up on finishing the book. Then I came back and tried again. Again, I gave up. And again, I returned to finish the job.
This just kept going. It kept going for THREE. YEARS.
Finally, at the end of 2018, I took a deep breath, saved and closed out the document, and accepted that I was done. I was not going to return to it even one more time. It was not a book I was going to finish. Our relationship, though valuable and meaningful, was officially over.
Why did I finally, after years of trying to finish an un-finishable project, let go and move on? It’s simple, really. I did it not because I was ready, but because I had to.
One of the most important things I tell readers of this blog is that in order to succeed as a writer, you must commit to consistent and measurable growth as a creator.
What does it mean for a writer, specifically, to grow? That definition really depends on your individualized goals and objectives. To you, growth might mean learning how to write dialogue that doesn’t sound like a heavily scripted Shakespeare drama. It could mean achieving the goal of finishing a full-length novel when you never have before, or publishing a blog post when you were previously terrified of sharing your work with other people.
Sometimes growth isn’t as straightforward or easy to keep track of, however. There are points in which the sole decision to commit to or abandon a story is a sign that you are learning either to embrace the subject matters that are difficult for you to spend time with or to put to bed things you no longer wish to focus on.
I finally decided to let my unfinished first draft go not because the story meant nothing to me or that I regretted working on it, but because it was time to say goodbye. I had moved on. I needed to focus on other projects. Most importantly, continuing to pay attention to that story was now holding me back from accomplishing my writing and personal goals.
Would I have loved to at least finish that first draft, feel good about myself for a day, and proceed to never look at it again? I guess so. It would have filled me with a temporary sense of accomplishment and technically would have earned me “I finished a first draft” bragging rights.
But it would not have satisfied me. I was no longer in a place where I needed to tell the end of that story because, in real life, the story had already reached its conclusion. I had gotten the closure I needed. For me, the book’s true purpose had been to offer me the closure I no longer needed. Therefore, for me personally, there just wasn’t any long-term benefit to finishing what I’d started.
Yes, I do actually still feel guilty sometimes that my book’s intended audience never got to read it. I wrote it not just for myself, but for anyone who was struggling with grief who needed to feel seen, heard, and understood. I wish I could have provided that comfort to anyone who may have needed it.
But that doesn’t mean a story I write — and hopefully finish, maybe even publish — can’t accomplish that same goal. Just because one story doesn’t work out doesn’t mean a different one won’t.
As writers, we are not bound to just one story. We are story collectors as much as we are storytellers. You have more than one story in you. It’s OK to move on to something new when another thing isn’t working. In fact, it just might be the best creative decision you ever make.
Because I finally let go of the story that had been weighing me down, I felt free to pursue a dozen more — and I have. And these stories are more filled out, more relatable, more mature. I learned so much from the story I abandoned. I grew. But I also knew the growth could not stop there. So I used what I learned, and continue to do so with every project I start — many of which I thankfully finish.
Don’t limit yourself. Don’t let an old idea hold you back. It is okay to say goodbye. It doesn’t mean your unfinished story doesn’t matter. It means it mattered so much you gained all you could from it, until there was nothing left. That is not failure. It is progress.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.