Dispatches | July 18, 2011

Browsing through the pages of The Rumpus last week, I came across a link to Steve Wilson’s website called My Unfinished Novels. You can check it out here. It’s a pretty simple site: novelists write in, stating the name of their novel, how many pages or words were written, a synopsis of the novel, and an explanation of why the novel was abandoned. On the site, Wilson describes himself as a “six-time failed novelist” and he is also the author of a nonfiction book called The Boys From Little Mexico: A Season Chasing The American Dream.

My Unfinished Novels shows that there is not one specific reason that comes up repeatedly as The Reason that novels are left incomplete on a hard drive or in a desk drawer. Some writers just found that they ran out of steam and couldn’t think of anything else to write. Some had life get in the way – a new job, a new relationship, a child. Others found structural flaws, or tried to get it published and couldn’t, or couldn’t stop tinkering and never quite got it done. One writer found her closest writer-friend actually killed her interest in writing. Another had the only copy of her novel eaten by her computer and couldn’t sustain the energy to write it again. How far did these various writers get? It varied from ten pages to one hundred thirty thousand words.

Two things initially intrigued me about the site. First, that people shared all the reasons that their work failed, which is a fairly open thing to do, given how secretive many writers can be about sharing unfinished or in-progress work. Second thing: unfinished novels are called “failures.”

Thinking about it, I feel like I’ve written three novels, but only two actually spring to mind: the one that is currently out wandering the publishing world and looking for a home, and the one that I wrote in graduate school. My grad school novel had an ugly title – Oscillations – and was three hundred forty(-ish) pages long. I turned it in for my thesis and my advisers read the whole thing and discussed it with me for two hours. The shortest summation of the book is that it was the story of two men, a father and his son, told over a period of twelve years, exploring how they ended up at the fractured point the reader meets them in: the first chapter is the chronological end, so the novel goes backwards in time.

I read Charles Baxter’s novel “First, Light” and really admired the mosaic quality of the story of two siblings. I wanted to do that, but in my own way. I wanted to write the book in a linear fashion, however, and going backwards in time was a way of making it unique (to me, at least). So the book was based on An Idea and, unfortunately, the idea wasn’t all that interesting and, perhaps more importantly, I couldn’t actually make it work, a fact that my thesis committee pointed out in the kindest terms they possibly could, advice that I resented at the time that I now am very grateful to have been told. I spent about fourteen months writing the novel, then another three after my thesis meeting, before putting it down and writing a completely different novel.

My grad school novel cannot be saved. It does not work. A few years ago, out of curiosity more than anything, I flipped through that grad school novel, and found that I had no interest in trying to make it work. The story struck me as having flaws and problems that are so inherent to what I created that there is no fixing it. Even if I wanted to fix them. Which I didn’t. Maybe that was the biggest thing in the end: not just paying lip service to my committee and acknowledging the book didn’t work, but being able to truly see why the book didn’t work on my own.

That’s a good thing, and why I wouldn’t necessarily call my unfinished novel a failure. In writing, there aren’t really failures. I don’t think so, at least. There are books and stories that get finished, and there are ones that don’t. This could just be a bit of sunny-side up optimism, but the foundation for the novel that I have now can be found in the grad school novel that I never completed to my satisfaction. My grad school novel does have a complete story, a good ol’ beginning and middle and end. I did finish the book. Yeah, second draft finished, but still, finished nonetheless.

Failure in writing is pretty simple to me: you stop writing. If a novel or poem or essay stops you from continuing work on it or preventing you from throwing it aside and working on the next new thing, well, that’s failure. But discovering that something you’ve worked on, no matter how long you’ve been at it, doesn’t work isn’t failure. That’s learning. That’s apprenticeship. That’s writing.

I’m nitpicking a bit: after all, the My Unfinished Novels website is supposed to be (I think) fun, and leaping all over the word “failure” is a bit over the top. Still, I worry that when it comes to our writing life, we are too quick to self-flagellation when maybe all we need to say is that the process of writing is years of work that is frustrating only if you choose to see it as frustrating. Unfinished isn’t bad. Especially if you’re always willing to sit down and right the next one.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review.

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