How I Made Peace with my Unfinished Stories

When I was in college, I used to view my unfinished stories as failures, despairing proof that anything I began would fizzle. I was afraid to write anything new. Why expend energy just to add a creative casualty to the story morgue?

Besides, too many of my stories had ended in embarrassment. Like my environment-themed fable that I stopped writing because it was too preachy; or the hilarious yarn that turned lachrymose somehow.

But many years later, I started to view writing as a lifestyle—not a slavish production job. I discovered that when I allowed myself to slow down and enjoy the process, not only did my writing improve; I stopped hating my unfinished writing and I even enjoyed rereading it.

My unfinished stories were—at the very least—good practice.  Even the silly ones. Why not congratulate myself for spending my time creating art rather than watching stale sit-coms?

Having befriended my unfinished stories, I began turning to them on days I had trouble knowing what to write. Rereading them, I would sink into a kind of nostalgia, as if rediscovering old belongings in an attic.

I even finished some of my old stories. One of my favorites was about extraterrestrials who, after first contact, decided that humans bored them. They stopped communicating with Earth because they simply had better things to do; the cosmic shrug left humanity heartbroken.

The story languished on my computer for almost a decade before I decided that I had to finish it.

I remembered painfully why I had abandoned the piece in the first place. It was because I had viewed the first three paragraphs as inspired. I had been attached to their musical rhythms. But after my first effort I had lost my “inspired” poetic flow, and was unable to recapture it. I gave up in frustration.

But the trick to reviving an old piece is the same as finishing any story: letting go. Clinging to favorite passages will stall any story.  I had to discard my original writing so that the story could become fresh again in my mind. I left the old paragraphs, and their moving rhythms, in the past where they belonged.

Luckily, I had acquired some other writing tricks beginning my “alien” story. I had learned for example that if I wrote a tentative ending to a story, even an absurd one, I was more likely to finish. Creating any point of arrival motivated me. I could always improve the ending later.

My other “trick” was mind-mapping. I used the “clustering,” technique described in Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico. I used my original title, “The Aliens Do Laundry” as the nucleus of my mind map, drew lines from it, and free-associated until a pattern I liked emerged.

After clustering, the new version of my story seemed to fall into place.

It was exciting to finish my story after so many years of its lying dormant on my iPad. But not all of my stories should be finished. Some are failed experiments that taught me what not to do.

Whether I ever complete an old story, there is never any reason to regret writing it. Not only was it good practice; rereading it reawakens a part of me that has been buried by time. Like forgotten toys in an attic, old stories contain a blend of familiarity and strangeness that I enjoy, and that allow me to reunite, if only for a moment, with my former self.

4 thoughts on “How I Made Peace with my Unfinished Stories

  1. Not finishing projects is the hallmark of my creative writing efforts. I have several dozen story fragments and multiple versions/docs of each of them. While drugs (Prozac and Ritalin) have helped curb my prototypical ADHD behavior, I still find myself in the mode of getting very excited while conceiving a storyline, but lose interest fairly quickly. As B. B. King so aptly put it – The Thrill Is Gone. It should be my theme song.

    I also have another complicating behavioral factor that slows my writing process down and contributes to the waning interest. I am a perfectionist. I am never, no, rarely satisfied with a paragraph. Thus, I spend a considerable portion of my creative hours in edit mode.

    I am considering switching from writing to audio recording. I’ll let you know if it works…

    Love reading your blog posts and your books.

    Regards, Bob

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Bob! It was a previous comment you made that gave me the idea for this post. I identified with your frustration with finishing projects. I’ve been there, and I wanted to share what I understood about it from my own experience.

      Good luck with the audio. I actually saw a book on Amazon that recommends doing that. I can see how that would help if you were struggling with getting down your content. You can always go back and revise.

      Thanks again for reading! 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Revisiting drafts from about ten years ago, and currently, trying to develop them as novels, has given me a chance to think about why I wanted to tell those stories Are they still relevant to me ? Even my in-box says yes.. Do I care about the characters ? Certainly . This time, will I finish what I started ? Yes – and I’ll publish them too. . .

    • Good luck turning your drafts into novels!
      If it helps, it’s actually not that unusual to put a manuscript away for even a decade and then finish it later. Stephen King did it with his famous “Dark Tower” series. Thanks for reading! 🙂

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