I’m Not Going to Apologize for My Unfinished Work
Because ‘unfinished’ writing is still writing…
As it currently stands, I wrote a book three years ago — nearly four — and it has been sitting, neatly printed in black and white, on my coffee table collecting dust and ostentatiously mocking me. So my stats look something like this:
- Wrote her first young adult novel at age 20, a semester before graduating college.
- Sat on said manuscript until (at least) 24.
- Wondered: Will it ever get published? Or noticed? Or read by another human being that wasn’t an overly-encouraging family member? Yet to be decided.
- Updates TK.
I have written at least ten short stories. I have started two other novels, following the completion of my first. Neither have exceeded several chapters. Neither have been validated by another pair of human eyes. Neither have even been printed out on 8x10” paper or edited with red pen.
But still, they exist, even if in half-life.
Recently, I breezed through Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, wide-eyed and semi open-hearted. As I read each page, I quite literally punched the air and even when reading in public, often muttered to myself approvingly, “YAAS, Liz! You nailed it!” (Suffice it to say I didn’t forge any new friendships during my morning and afternoon commutes.) One of the anecdotes that struck me the hardest can be paraphrased as such: LG had an idea for a book, began researching and writing it, only to abandon it for several years and return to the now-stale idea feeling uninspired and as if she was no longer its rightful owner.
Do you know what she did? She let that idea go. And eventually, it traveled to someone else, a writer who was ready to take hold of it and bring it to fruition.
This made me think. But I only began to scratch the surface of the similar parallel I saw unfolding in my own life: Were the book and story ideas I conceived in the past becoming stale? Would I return to them?
Would they soon no longer be mine? Would they travel to another owner who could do them better justice than I could?
Recently, I listened to the 10 Minute Writing Workshop, a podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio. The particular episode that I metaphorically dogeared was Episode 3, which featured Patti Smith. She answers the podcast’s standard questions asked of every guest: “What’s your biggest distraction from writing?” and “What mistakes do you think new writers make?” But then they get to the question of, “How many times were you rejected before getting published?” and with her answer, Patti Smith changed my perception of what constitutes successful writing. She said:
“A lot. Truthfully, I was rejected quite a bit when I was young. All my poems and everything was rejected. I haven’t really — relatively — published that much. I spent most of my life writing and not publishing. I have novels, unfinished novels, stacks of unpublished poems. I’ve only published about a tenth of what I’ve written… But when I was younger, I got rejected all the time. I didn’t really let it bother me; I just kept writing.”
I only scratched the surface of my own writing journey post Big Magic and here’s why: Liz doesn’t express a lick of guilt about giving up on her novel and neither does Patti Smith.
For these two writers, the writing was enough, whether it was validated publicly or deemed successful or not.
In fact, Liz Gilbert reacts genuinely enthralled when her writer friend pitches (and actually goes through with writing) a similar idea to the book she abandoned. Liz writes:
“The worst and most destructive conclusion I could’ve drawn was that [another writer] had stolen my idea. That would have been absurd, of course, because [she] had never even heard of my idea, and besides, she’s the single most ethical human being I’ve ever met close-up. But people do draw hateful conclusions like this all the time. People convince themselves that they have been robbed when they have not, in fact, been robbed. Such thinking comes from a wretched allegiance to the notion of scarcity — from the belief that the world is a place of dearth, and that there will never be enough of anything to go around. The motto of this mentality is: Somebody else got mine. Had I decided to take that attitude, I would surely have lost my dear new friend… But I didn’t do any of that garbage. Instead, I chose to regard this event as having been a terrific little miracle. I allowed myself to feel grateful and astonished to played any part whatsoever in its strange unfolding.”
Sometimes, I stop reading a book after the first chapter or mid-read. Sometimes, I click on a recommended article and my eyes glaze over before I can even scroll to the bottom. And sometimes, I write novels that have yet to surpass a word count of just 1,000.
Up until now, those instances left me feeling guilty.
Does that make me a poor reader? Does that make me a shit writer?
I’m adapting the Liz Gilbert/Patti Smith philosophy and henceforth owning what I write, whether it feels completed or not. Whether the writing is published or not. It still existed. It was still made. Getting these works published or even receiving an overwhelmingly positive review is no longer the validation I’m going to look for within writing.
Because here’s the secret: I haven’t been robbed. So it’s time to stop feeling that way.
I’m going to sit right where I’m at. I’m going to feel grateful and astonished to have played any part whatsoever in its strange unfolding.
So fuck the guilt. Fuck the feelings of inadequacy. Fuck the half-hearted apology I utter to myself, my friends, my fellow writers, my family members, and my third grade teacher who prophesied that one day I’d become a famous novelist.
I’m not going to apologize for my unfinished work. Because it’s work. I don’t care if it’s half a poem or seventy pages of a story that was worth one hundred. I’m going to sit where I’m at so if that means a tenth of the literature I write gets published, even a lesser fraction of that spurs good reviews, or I abandon the ideas that no longer serve me at the moment, I’m going to be proud of what I did achieve, of what I did make.
Like this? Can you relate? Then recommend it!
Stephanie is a social media editor in the magazine industry and blogs about all things lifestyle at StephOsmanski.com. Her words have been featured onSeventeen, USA Today, Parents, J-14, HelloFlo, Hollywood, and more.