Sorry that this is a little long. I haven’t figured out how to do a blog jump to another page (technical advice always welcome). I think I’ve been inspired by Josh Henkin's “Letter to an MFA Student” this week on Buzz, Balls & Hype. Enough throat-clearing….
I’m teaching a fiction workshop at Johns Hopkins University, and last week, at our first meeting, one of the students asked a difficult question: Are there books that simply can’t get published, and what should that mean to a beginning writer? When should we give up on a book (or a story)? The question stuck with me throughout the week because it’s so hard to answer definitively.
Of course, only the writer can make that difficult decision about when to give up on a project; I don’t think it’s a teacher’s place to specifically tell a student to move on (though some might disagree). So, how do you as the writer—beginning or experienced—know when to abandon something and take what you’ve learned and move forward with your knowledge, applying it to something new? Certainly it’s much easier to leave behind a 10-page story you’ve been working on for a month than a 300-page novel you’ve been working on for three years.
I’m a big believer in persistence and perseverance—and have my share of stories to support that: the short story that 25 journals rejected before it won $500 in a contest (and became the first chapter of Pears on a Willow Tree); the journal that had rejected my story then called up three months later to tell me they “loved” my story that they had just found in a drawer (this story was then cited in the back of the Best American Short Stories); the dozens of queries I sent out before finding an agent—not once, but twice. I wrote three novels that didn’t get published. And certainly I have plenty of short stories that I thought were perfectly fine—and some even more than fine—that didn’t ever get published that I had to choose to abandon.
But this perseverance also has to be balanced with moving forward. In all those instances, though I was still committed to the project in question, I had also moved forward in a variety of ways: I kept sending out the stories to other places, I had already started another novel while waiting to find an agent.
And that’s the key, I think, to finding the proper balance. People will offer various tidbits of advice, much of it valid:
--Don’t give up until you’ve lost interest and can’t stand your book anymore
--Don’t give up until you now see and understand why the piece is not successful
--Don’t’ give up until you’ve literally sent it everywhere you can, A to Z in the agent book
--Don’t give up until you’ve rewritten your book or story so many times you can’t see straight
But this is the piece of advice that makes the most sense to me, given my past experience: Write something new, and that will lead you to the point where you know it’s time to give up. More concisely, Don’t give up until you write something new.
I think that’s the thing that makes us know when we’re ready to move forward: when we’ve written more books or stories and in doing so, we’ve reached a new point from which to evaluate earlier work. We’re so engaged by a new project that we can dispassionately see the flaws in the old, but we don’t feel the energy or zeal or need to rewrite again; that’s when we can let go. (And letting go doesn’t mean you’ve “failed”—it just means you’re moving on.) Or, we’re so engaged by the new project that we can see that it’s simply time to let go of the old because we want to focus on the new—again, which isn’t failing. It doesn’t have to mean that the old was “bad”—something can be entirely successful on your terms and still not get published. Getting published should never be used as the total benchmark of what’s “successful.” Plenty of crap is published, plenty of great literature struggles. The Great Gatsby was out-of print when Fitzgerald died; same with Faulkner’s work at his death. Emily Dickinson wasn’t published during her lifetime; Walt Whitman self-published “Song of Myself.” We know the stories. (And who knows what great works have fallen through the cracks?). Publishing is about making money, not necessarily about making art.
In graduate school, I think there’s a temptation to view each piece as the “masterwork” and the thesis as the life’s mission. Many years after getting my MFA, I returned to my alma mater as a returning “visiting writer,” and I shocked a huge room of MFA students (and some profs) by announcing that my thesis was crap and that I was happy now it hadn’t been published.
Yes, MFA students should be proud of their thesis as they write it and must put hard work into it to make it as perfect as it can be. And going through an MFA program and finishing a thesis and getting a degree is a tremendous achievement. But if you’re a serious writer, this thesis most likely will not be the only thing you write. And—because you will continue to write and read and grow as a person and have new life experiences that shape you—it probably will not be the best thing you write. Have confidence that you will improve. Be persistent, but always keep your eye on whatever’s lurking around the next bend. Writing is a path without limits, without constraints. Your best work may be just ahead, the piece you start tomorrow. Or the one after that. Or after that.
That’s where your perseverance is most necessary: to keep writing in the face of rejection.
I was on a panel this spring with Carolyn Parkhurst, author of the best-selling and wonderful novels The Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found, which is about a TV reality show (and is just about to be released in paperback). She’s a very down-to-earth person, and very smart, and when this topic came up, it was not all that surprising that she quoted a Doritos commercial from several years ago: “Crunch all you want. We’ll make more.”
That is, you won’t run out of ideas. You won’t run out of stories. The only thing you’ll run out of, eventually, is time. And the only way to address that is to squeeze a lot in: write a lot and write well and move forward. Trust yourself, trust that your work will only get better.