On Not Finishing the Books I Have Started (Writing)

I have maybe five completed or nearly-completed manuscripts on my digital desktop that will never see the light of day. There are another five novels and one play. I have 8-12 manuscripts that are partially finished--a few books, a few articles I thought might someday get made into books, and maybe three articles in which I lost interest. 

I used to think that I would eventually get around to publishing the books that were finished. I would fantasize about growing my CV by half a page with only 1-2 months of dedicated work. But it's been five years for a few of them, and I don't think it'll happen.

Mark Twain had a similar problem. In Life on the Mississippi, he provides an excerpt from what would become Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This he provides with an explanation about how the book will probably never get finished, and that it would get added to the growing pile of misfit manuscripts. That made me feel a little better about my own pile.

I Give Up On Books Because My Values Change

I can think of two explanations for why I discard a book after working on it for weeks or months. The first has to do with my changing values. When I think about what is important to me and refuse to let others cloud my judgement, then I conclude that two things are important to me:

  1. Writing quality, and 
  2. Providing resources that support the growth and well-being of others (typically college professors). 
But I am also easily influenced by others. It is easy for me to lose sight of my writing values.

At a philosophy of education conference, I attended a panel where a few scholars talked about the books they had written. The books were quintessential academic monographs--long and complicated titles with descriptions that were covered in names of obscure philosophers like toppings on a pizza. I was impressed by their display of knowledge. I thought about the kinds of titles I could write and the philosophers who would season them.

In the past, I would have left the conference with a new book idea. I would have worked on the book--reviewing the old and new on the subject before writing it--for a month-and-a-half. I would keep myself going by imagining which publishers might want to sell my book, and how my new publication might look to others.

Eventually the ego trip motivation would fade, and I would be left with 40,000 words that do little to help people live fuller or more satisfying lives. I could revise the manuscript to make it fun to read, but I would eventually decide that I was not so interested in the book after all, and would move it to the "Forgotten Books" folder. 

I am hoping that one day I will have the courage to delete them. American Beat Poet Charles Bukowski explained how he would send short stories and poems to magazines by mail. The poems would either get published or they would be lost forever. Most were lost forever. I imagine that there is something freeing about cutting ties with less-than-ideal quality work.

I Give Up On Books Because They Aren't Any Good

Increasingly I have been abandoning books because they just don't feel right. I imagine that this is why Twain gave up on so many of his books. Vonnegut spent over 20 years writing Slaughterhouse Five and 10 years writing Cat's Cradle.

Here is a book that I all published. It was titled Growing Pains: An Existential Guide to Human Development. I got a pre-print proof and everything. But I decided that it was too preachy, and I'm done with all of that.

Book that will never see the light of day.

The first few books that I wrote were guided by word count and general publication requirements. I relied heavily on editor and peer reviews to decide whether a book was finished. But I have since become interested in writing quality and writing style. 

I am beginning to understand what David Foster Wallace meant when he said that he would write at least seven drafts of his essays-- a process that would take around six months. When I first read that, I thought, "Jeez! My essays take about 8 hours, tops." Now I can see that my lack of dedication was showing.

Today I can say that a first draft can run anywhere from 2-8 hours, but subsequent drafts will take at least a week (usually much longer). I like to return to a rough draft after it has been sitting awhile. Stephen King likes to wait six months between first and second drafts. But a week seems to be long enough for me. When returning to an essay, for example, I often find that the focus is something other than I thought it would be. Maybe I called it "How to Connect With Students," but go on to read five pages about e-mail etiquette. I rewrite the title, restructure the essay accordingly, then I let it steep some more. Each time the process occurs, the writing gets better. It becomes more focused and better organized, which means easier to read.

Soon I feel like the manuscript is nearly done. I read through it like a judgmental mother, highly sensitive to anything that seems out of place or uncomfortable. American short story writer George Saunders describes this as having a nun in his head.

Because the process requires so much time and focus, I only bother to do it with writing projects that are important to me. Ego gratification is an insufficient motivator. 

When I look back at an unfinished manuscript, I quickly realize why it is unfinished. It is disorganized or didactic or devoid of style. I get a headache thinking about all the work that it would require to rehabilitate, then abandon it before I ruin my afternoon.

Maybe I will delete those unfinished books after all.