They were taking up space. They were draining me emotionally and creatively. They needed to go. There was only one problem: they were my old unfinished manuscripts.
I’ve heard that some writers have no problem culling their own work. After all, ruthlessness is a crucial part of self-editing, and editing is the key to good writing. But in spite of how easily I can cut a sentence or scene or chapter that isn’t working – and how easily I’ve been able to let go of much of the stuff I’ve encountered in this decluttering quest – I tend to hoard my old writing.
During this process I came across whole drawers and boxes packed full of writing. Much of it was innocuous stuff, multiple copies of poems and short stories – the remnants of years of creative writing classes. In those cases, the solution was clear: keep one or two copies of each thing, or the final class portfolio if there was one, and let the rest go.
False starts and creative drain
But things weren’t so clear when I stumbled on the manuscripts of the first three books I tried to write. (The one I’m working on now, Unlucky Creatures, was the fourth book I attempted and the first one I actually finished.) The first one I decided to keep; it had been fifteen years since I last worked on or even seriously thought about it, and as awful as it is to actually read, I’m as sentimental about it as a parent is about their child’s art projects.
The second and third ones, however, were just depressing for me to even look at. The second book was crappy fanfiction masquerading as historical fiction which, while kind of nerdily adorable, was just embarrassing and didn’t have much material I could salvage for other things. It was both awful and useless. The third was about a mental breakdown I had in my late teens, written while I was still in the midst of the breakdown. (ProTip: don’t write about a major mental upheaval while you’re still in the middle of it. You need at least a little time to process things and get the right perspective.)
Finding the drafts and notes for the third book really depressed me. Part of this was the fact that they were reminders of a really low point in my life, and part of this was guilt over abandoning the book to begin with. It was a project I’d worked obsessively on for a few years – everything I wrote during that time was for this book – and still only half of it was written down. In the end I had to leave it behind for my own sake, which was a hard decision.
As I looked over that manuscript I also realized that even though I’d put that project down almost seven years ago, it was still negatively affecting my writing. Every time I decided to set aside a story or book, even temporarily, a voice in the back of my brain went “Oh great, it’s the third book all over again.” And even though I had no intention of finishing that book, I still found myself withholding ideas from my current writing because part of me felt like I had to “save” them for the third book instead.
Even though the negative energy surrounding these manuscripts was clear, I still hesitated to get rid of them – even though I still had all the digital files for the third book. What if I regretted it later? What if I realized I could make them work somehow? It was incredibly unlikely, yes, but still more likely than the idea that someday somebody else would have a strong desire to look at them.
Once I started to consider getting rid of it, I started to feel even guiltier over the third book than I had before – but for different reasons. That book was something that my late fiancé had been a part of, reading through it and encouraging me to continue; would throwing it out be like throwing him out? I knew the idea was absurd, but it still held me back.
So finally I decided I needed somebody neutral to help me decide, somebody who I could explain all my feelings to but who wasn’t invested in these projects – my partner. He agreed to help me out, so I packed it all up and brought it along with me when I went to visit him this past week.
Imagine this, but crammed into a backpack.
After I got there I showed him everything, explained how I was feeling, and asked him what he thought I should do. “Let them go,” he said. I still hesitated, and he continued, “You already know it’s the right thing to do.” He was right, of course. If I hadn’t wanted to get rid of them, I wouldn’t have lugged them along on an eight-hour-long bus trip to hear the answer that, deep down, I already knew he was going to give.
One by one, the packets of paper went into the recycling bin. Once they did I had no desire to retrieve them. In fact, I almost cried with relief. It felt like I’d finally freed up a lot of space – not just in my desk, but in my mind. Finally, I could focus completely on my current work instead of feeling guilty over past work.
Maybe someday I will regret throwing those manuscripts out, but I can’t make all my decisions based on future regret. That writing’s gone. It’s time to make more.