In Defense of Abandoned Projects

Inspiration is a wonderful fleeting affair that some regale and others revile. It isn’t terribly dependable as fodder for finished art and writing but it can make the difficult days worthwhile knowing that inspiration is as delightful as it is capricious. I’m not sure when I stopped chasing inspiration and started focusing on doing the work. Honestly, I may never have stopped but perhaps I became more pragmatic about what I was chasing. Recently I discovered that the term for someone like me who hangs onto books that I’m not in the process of reading, who hoards them, is a book dragon. I may also be a bit of a story dragon.

Over the years I have not kept track of the word counts on short lived or abandoned stories but there are a dozen that I worked on long enough to give them form but not long enough to refine them. In popular culture there’s this notion that writers and artists bring to life stories through inspiration, drama and persistence but the day to day is more boring. Although there are creative geniuses who are prolific while also fighting inner demons and being a nexus of drama, the vast majority are nothing like that. For the years I was under the sway of the romance of the creative type I would periodically destroy unfinished projects which taunted me in their unfinished state. I ran after the highs of inspiration, the midnight moments of fevered ideas that made sleep impossible and was terribly disappointed when the cold morning light did not reveal masterpieces.

As embarrassing as it is, this was part of my creative development. There are still a few very early projects I couldn’t let go of and still haul around from apartment to apartment. Some from my late teens that I let a few close friends read because, at the time, it was my best work. Best in this case is relative and the idea of sharing any of it with anyone now makes me consider destroying it. Said friends were very supportive at the time. When I read the work now I have a variety of reactions. The first is the inevitable cringe at something I have recognized in the work of other writers whose teenaged writings bear similar elements of inexperience and naivety. I can see myself very clearly in the work, themes I was exploring were attempts to understand my world, to make sense of it and to try to say something about that. However, I was lacking the experience to articulate my vision at the time and this dissonance led to the abandonment of those projects. Revisiting these incomplete and usually cringeworthy stories became part of my routine for becoming a better writer, learning how to better articulate myself and understanding my own aesthetic interests.

Some stories cannot be told by the version of yourself that gets the idea. This was what I learned as I stopped destroying old pieces and began hoarding them. Recently I was reading a story that sparked a memory of a story I have picked up and shelved at regular intervals. It is likely to be more of a short story than a novel length thing if I ever figure out how to express the specific mood and tone that haunts me about it and it has already been through three rounds of edits over the years. Like the writing of my teen years it was too close to the surface of my life and I struggled to find the story’s voice in the cacophony of my experiences. Each edit further refined specific aspects but I was always too close to it and kept putting it on a shelf, abandoning it to time in the hopes that if there was something there I could revisit it.

The thing that completes any project is the work not the idea. I enjoy shelving projects that I’m not ready to work on. Sometimes I have thought that shelving the project would make it go stale or become too dusty to ever return to its previous shine. For years my inspiration dried up and I could only find the headspace for the one big project that still occupies my life. I wondered if that would be a permanent change, something about growing older and losing that essence of youth that seems to make anything possible. Lately I have been rediscovering inspiration, it still tastes as sweet and is just as fleeting and fickle as always. But I have a wonderful collection of abandoned projects that spark new interest in me and distance gives me new insight into how to say what I was trying to say.

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