For a long time, I’ve been a believer in the “never look back” philosophy. I believe stories find us writers at particular times for particular reasons. So, a story that interested me years ago probably wouldn’t be of interest today. On a recent panel, someone in the audience asked me if I’d ever revisit old projects and I said, “No! And, trust me, that’s a good thing.” Everyone laughed.
Now I’m not so sure about what I said.
I’ve been revisiting some novels and short stories long-ago abandoned at various stages of completion. I expected that I would pick up an old story and think, “Eh, this doesn’t get me going like it did then.” BUT, what I’ve found is that I am excited about a few of my old ideas.
In his essay “Looking Back” for Glimmer Train, Andrew Porter discusses this topic:
“I’ve recently begun to wonder whether my own tendency to always look forward—to always believe that my best work lies before me, that the fiction I wrote five years ago isn’t nearly as good as the fiction I’m writing today—doesn’t prevent me from recognizing the potential value in some of those old unpublished stories that are just sitting there on my hard drive or collecting dust in a folder.”
Porter shares how he gave his girlfriend a collection of stories, including a 10-year-old story (“Departure”) that he assumed she would dismiss. Turns out she liked “Departure” best. He tweaked it and sent it out and, to his surprise, a magazine he’d always admired accepted it for publication. Then the story won a freaking Pushcart Prize and was selected for NPR’s Selected Shorts. Basically, a story he had written off became his most successful to date.
“There are any number of reasons for why stories get orphaned and forgotten, why they get sent to the darkest corners of our hard drives. Sometimes they may belong there, but other times I think they remain there simply because we’ve chosen to forget them, or worse, because we’ve given up on them.”
Now, he tells his students to never give up on a story out of frustration. The solution may be to simply put the story away for a while.
I have a few novels I abandoned for one reason or another, but they’ve always been in my mind. There is something there. Often, I fall into the trap of wondering, “But is working on this best for my writing career?” Forget “the career.” That’s my advice to myself and others. You have to work on what interests you, then worry about finding a home for it. The novel I’m playing with now is something I started back in 2009, worked on intensely for several months, then left behind. I still love the story. So, that’s my focus during this 100-day writing challenge–finishing a draft of that novel and seeing how I feel about it.
I still do believe that story ideas come to us at certain times for certain reasons. But I also believe that we’re not always in a place to complete these stories. Sometimes, life has to play out a bit for the ending to come. And only in retrospect does the delay make sense.