Compartmentalize Your Writing So You Can Still Love Doing It

Case in point: my unfinished novel

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

The writing advice I’ve read recently seems focused on productivity rather than craft. I get it. Attract followers. Go viral. Make money.

My advice: be careful with that.

Writing is not merely a way to make money. It’s not only about having your voice heard. It’s about exercising your voice so you yourself can hear it as well. It’s also about choosing what you want others to hear, and what you want to keep to yourself. And yes, it’s about considering your readership and what they want to hear. But isn’t it also about innovation and encouraging readers to venture into new territory?

I’ve lived a lot of my life trying to please everyone. In my writing, I try not to do that. It’s the one place I can be me. I bristle at being coached heavily to please readers so they’ll read me.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s important to learn how to compartmentalize as a writer. I can give readers what they want most of the time. Sure. However, when it comes to my unfinished novel, I’m going to come clean.

My Foremother in All Her Unfinished-ness

I wrote the first draft of my novel in graduate school. Here comes the clean. That was 20 years ago. I know. I can feel the tsk-tsking as I write that.

My novel was inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, a remarkable British woman who wrote towards the end of the eighteenth century on women’s rights, way ahead of her time. She also lived her life freely, heeding the advice of practically no one, and paying a stiff price for it, including not having her writing read and taken seriously until half a century after her death. Her death is notable, too. She died ten days after giving birth to another Mary, who would eventually be known as Mary Shelley, famous author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

When Mary Wollstonecraft died, she left behind an unfinished novel, Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman. It apparently was complete enough, as her husband, philosopher William Godwin, published it for her, justifying in the Preface of the novel the need for minimal edits, his “most earnest desire to intrude nothing of himself into the work”.

I read this unfinished novel and it spoke to me, alone in the car at a soccer field, waiting for my daughter to be done with practice. I changed the focus of my graduate thesis to this woman, the act itself of literary creation, and writing a novel modeled after her Maria.

I finished the first draft of my novel in two years while completing my coursework. The following year, I submitted both a critical and creative thesis, beyond what is required for a Master’s in English, having revised several chapters of my novel for that submission. Then, I graduated and started working full-time while raising teenagers.

That novel was my heart. It stayed with me. I’d come back to it when I could manage free gaps of time here and there. I’d make plans to finish it. My plans would get dashed, not for lack of trying.

Each time I’d think, should I just scrap it? Was it a phase I went through? Was it that first novel you’re supposed to throw away?

Yet, the characters haunted me: the female characters at the forefront of the novel, brought together by the violence they had endured, and the redeeming male character who had grown out of a critique in my short fiction seminar.

Revel in Having Done It

During graduate school, I was dealing with an ugly divorce that went on for years. This novel was my refuge in those days. I’d get the kids off to bed and stay up until all hours of the night, into the morning, allowing my unconscious to go places I didn’t know existed. I discovered things about life I didn’t know I knew. Secrets that came out in the novel.

Writing the first draft of the novel and all the following efforts at revision made me a better writer, and a humbled one. I always thought writing was something you were gifted at or you weren’t. I thought I was one of the gifted ones that didn’t have to work that hard at it to be better. Crafting this novel with the help of experienced writers and also experienced readers opened my eyes to writing as a constant work in progress. You can always get better. Or, there is always a better you can be.

A few months ago, as I was coming up on the 20-year mark since completion of the first draft, I wondered once more if I should just hang it up, you know, toss it.

I can’t. It won’t let me.

So I took a new approach to this novel.

I know it goes against all the advice I’ve read recently when it comes to one’s writing. Still, in this world of increasing emphasis on followers, virality, likes and claps, and all that these mechanisms add up to financially, I took a step back. I remembered this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson and decided to embody its wisdom:

The reward of a thing well done is having done it.

That’s all I needed to redirect myself. This novel has my whole heart. I will give it the best of me.

I refuse to throw it away.

Revision is now my weekend work. I’m coming to the end. I’ve got a plan.

The plan is to give it my best until I feel as if I’ve finished it, my whole heart signing off on a job well done. That will be the reward. Anything more than that will be welcome and embraced, but the doing of it, this writing project in particular, and doing it well, is enough.

This is not writing advice. This is life advice. Love what you do, and do it not only for others but for you, too.

Writer and avid reader. Teacher of writing. Trauma-informed counselor. Marathoner. Survivor. Here to share, here to learn.

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