What was the most recent thing you’ve wanted to achieve really, really badly in your writing career? I mean something that you would persevere with even if it meant sacrificing a good portion of your time.
For me, it was publishing a book. Actually, two books. Both of which have been in the works for at least two years now.
Other than those, I have at least a hundred documents of writing material I speculated would make for some pretty decent stories at their conception.
There are thousands of these stories in my head, and the task of narrowing down the selection to just one or two or even six is a daunting one. Some stories resonate more than others at certain times, and others may be interesting to pursue for only a few months or weeks.
How do you know when a project is good—that a project is worth pursuing?
That your project is worth putting in the extra hour a day just to ensure it advances at all?
When actually posing these questions, or similar ones, to friends, colleagues, or advisers, you’ve probably been met with this phrase more than once:
“Don’t give up!”
But sometimes (or maybe more often than sometimes), the words don’t resonate.
While we’re told often enough to persevere in our projects, sometimes we need to consider whether we’d be better off walking away altogether.
There are important lessons you learn as a writer while following through on your projects. But there are also invaluable lessons you learn from letting go of them.
If you’ve applied to writing programs, it’s likely you’ve needed to write a statement of purpose in which you define why you write and what your goals are as a writer.
The same goes for your projects: Your project needs to have a purpose.
Why are you writing this particular project over others? What questions are you trying to get answers to? What makes you want to explore this topic or genre or subject matter?
When you consider the purpose of your writing project and you feel empty or can’t think of what it means to you, then it may be a sign that you need to walk away.
It may not be what you want to hear, but consider the consequences of working on something that doesn’t grapple with an answer to a question you’re eager to solve, or a writing project that is a reiteration of something you’ve done previously.
As I mentioned, I have a fair amount of stories I dreamed up and started working on, but haven’t really gotten around to giving them the attention they need to have more developed narratives, or even just more than 10 single-spaced pages. One of the main reasons is that they don’t really speak to the purpose I’ve set out for myself as a writer.
My motivation is to speak to the human condition.
I’m inspired by stories that seem ordinary but speak to the larger issues of equality in all its forms, self-discovery and self-development, and minorities who overcome life’s unforeseen setbacks.
I’ve tried to write the next Harry Potter as well as the next Uglies (in my more youthful days), and, well, working dedicatedly on those lasted maybe three months at most.
In short, I lost passion because, though I had a share of original ideas to make these stories more “me,” they weren’t stories I really wanted to publish. Even though I knew they could do well in the market given the subject matter, it was as if I were writing these stories for that reason alone: for the acclaim.
When your project has a purpose behind it (and one you feel especially passionate about), you’re more likely to see it to completion, and you’re more likely to feel fulfilled with each way it progresses and takes shape.
Though it’s not easy to go back to a story that you’ve already fleshed out quite well and try to rewrite it with a new purpose in mind, it’s definitely doable. And if you really love the story, I suggest you do this.
Pick a subject matter or story that speaks to you, that makes you feel like you’re discovering the answer to a riddle you created yourself.
Everyone has their off days—with writing and with every other profession. But how often do they happen for you as a writer?
When you sit down to work on your project, does it give you joy? Or at least a sense of fulfillment?
It’s important to feel like the process of working on your project is satisfying something within you, whatever that may be. Only you know whether you get that feeling when you sit down to write. And I know you know when you don’t get that feeling.
If it feels like a struggle to put words to the page, ask yourself why. It could be that you’re just going through a certain season as a writer, or you may discover another reason. Maybe you just aren’t enjoying your current writing project.
Getting to the bottom of these questions can dictate whether you should continue moving forward or not.
Sometimes we write things because we feel like we need to, but understanding that we have a right to enjoy what we write about is mandatory as well as very liberating.
Truthfully, you should enjoy what you’re writing about. And if you’re not, you should reconsider the topic—whatever it is that you can change to make it so that you do enjoy working on your writing project.
If you’re not enjoying whatever you’re writing, it’s time to move on to focusing your attention on other writing projects. Often, these “distractions” from your main project can actually make you fall back in love with writing.
I know—it’s difficult. Our projects become our babies.
And, like babies, when they start growing up and become more “adult,” it’s difficult to let them go.
But I urge you not to be that clingy parent who doesn’t let their daughter go out on any dates because they’re afraid that they’ll become a different person or they’ll start to hang out with someone more than you.
Understand this: Without you, your project never would have existed in the first place.
Your project is completely unique to you. And it grows because of you.
But you have to release your grip on it a bit. If you feel like you’re trying to force something to work—say, make a character interact with another, or keep a section of the story that doesn’t add anything but is written beautifully—consider walking away for a period of time.
In these situations, it may not be that it’s not worth it to work on the story. You may just be trying too hard and you need to take a period of time away from it.
If it’s too hard to walk away completely, consider doing some freewriting, journaling, or brainstorming on your project.
Walking away from a project is like saying “no” to a potentially nice relationship. Maybe the person is really sweet and you’ve grown to care about them and they care about you, but at the end of the day, you know you wouldn’t spend your life with them.
And that’s OK. We all need to know what it is we’re looking for, and we all need to feel like we’re fulfilled as human beings.
Among other important feelings, passion, joy, inspiration, fulfillment, freedom, and purpose are of high importance when you write. If you don’t feel at least a portion of these the majority of the time, then you need to reconsider your project and potentially discard it.
You don’t have to set it on fire or do the technical equivalent (put it in your computer’s trash can and empty said trash can); you can just let it move down the list of recently saved documents while you gradually work on projects that do give you these feelings.
It’s not only important for you to enjoy your job, but it’s important for your audience that you enjoy your job too.
So don’t get angry with yourself just because you feel like something is off. It happens to all of us, and it’s just a telltale sign that you care about what you do.
So take a step back. Let off some steam. Write a poem about it. Don’t get upset at yourself and don’t try to force anything.
Just give your project—and yourself—space to breathe.
Stephanie Guarino is a recent BA graduate of Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa where she majored in Media and Communications. Recently, she has returned to the Chicagoland area to work as a full-time freelancer of editing and writing. She has edited for ebooks and blogs, and has had her work published in a quarterly poetry magazine.