As far as I can tell, the only thing harder than starting a new piece of writing is trying to restart a piece of writing. In fact, I’m starting to believe there’s a “novel in the drawer” epidemic overtaking our country. I can’t seem to get through a class or a conference or the supermarket without tripping over someone who’s given up on their writing because their novel didn’t turn out so well or they never got that one short story published or they gave up on poetry because of sonnets.
In my mind, this is the equivalent of giving up on your health goals because you accidentally ate a package or two of double-stuffed Oreos that one time. And I can certainly appreciate the impulse, because I gave in to it myself for so many years. There’s a little bit of a delicious, self-martyring element to it, too, isn’t there? It’s so much more romantic and wistful and self-sabotaging to talk about the creative work that got away, the one that got so close to being everything you dreamed it could be but which died a tuberculin death in a dust-filled drawer, than it is to, say, groan and pull that novel out.
But here’s what’s extraordinary. The more you pull that novel – or short story, or poem, or dissertation – out, the better it gets. I know this sounds obvious, but understanding this conceptually is much different than embracing it in reality. For one thing, this is no simple cause-and-effect relationship. The work gets better, but rarely in a convenient, consistent fashion. In fact, as far as I can tell there’s a weird plateau in the writer’s learning curve that occurs right around the time a piece of writing starts to shape up into something decent. One might get a decent piece of writing out of ten drafts, or five, or even just a few. But to take a decent piece of writing into the realm of a great, or even excellent piece of writing, you might be looking at ten times as many drafts. I imagine this is a bit how sculptors work. Initially, they might carve the general shape of a work out after just a few passes, but getting that stone from, say, the general idea of a horse into something that looks like it’s about to start galloping away is going to take a world of polishing.
As I write this, I can picture all of you secretly patting yourselves on the back for having the wisdom to step away from this when you did. After all, who wants to be endlessly chipping away at something when you can have a beer in one hand, a slice of pizza in the other, and Netflix on an infinite loop within a matter of minutes? No one, that’s who. At least initially. But what few people realize when staring down the barrel of endless chipping is that, over time, the chipping itself develops its own intrinsic rewards.
It’s not just about getting your work to a better place. In fact, the more you write, the more likely you are to encounter those days when your work looks worse than it did when you started. It’s more about the benefits of going deep and long into something you care about. We’ve grown used to expecting so much so quickly, from ourselves as much as our world. But sometimes I wonder if that’s why lasting work is less likely to get created these days, why we’re less dissatisfied overall, constantly looking over each other’s shoulder like a bunch of manic squirrels convinced the world cannot possibly contain enough nuts to satisfy us.
The art of the jump start, on the other hand, is subtle. It’s the quiet weathering of your foibles and imperfections, a quiet devotion to meaning that’s seeded incrementally and over time. It’s forgiving yourself for having kept that novel in the drawer for five years or five decades and starting over anyway, even if that means an obnoxious amount of moaning and groaning, even if that means on the first day you have to go lie down because it’s even worse than you thought. It’s about knowing that this won’t be the last time you’re discouraged, and that you can persist anyway. It’s giving yourself the permission to restart without judgement, the audacity to release the story you’ve been carrying around about why you gave up in the first place and dive into the far more interesting work of creating a new story. It’s seeing the trees instead of the forest; an investment in what you can do here and now instead of a judgment about the past or an expectation about the future. And ironically, when you do learn to appreciate your trees, when you figure out how to care for even the stumpy and flowerless ones, your forest will be that much more likely to flourish.