Saying goodbye to things that will never be, writing more than one thing, and The Dutch House
Many years ago, I started a list of books, movies, and television shows I wanted to write. At first, it was only a few pages long, but over the years, it has grown into an enormous, complicated, living document.
It’s one of my favorite things to go back and read. Whenever I revisit it, I fall in love with the ideas all over again, and I’m reminded of how much love and care went into each one and how much I want each one to exist. Very few of the ideas are just ideas. Over the years, many of the things that began as merely ideas in the document have grown into full-fledged projects. Almost every one of them has been outlined in great detail, several of them have been written and exist as first drafts (especially the screenplays) or as almost-first-drafts (novels and nonfiction books). Some of them have been published or will be published soon.
But sometimes revisiting the document leaves me with a little bit of sadness, because I know that many of the projects will never exist. For example, there’s a series of introductory physics books I’ve outlined and have always wanted to write — books for people who want to understand the basics of physics but don’t have the math or science background required for formal study; as much as I’d love to write and publish them, they are pretty much a dead end (who would buy them? who would publish them?) And the epic poem I’ve outlined and always wanted to write about the birth of the universe? Yeah, that’s another one.
There are so many ideas and stories that I love that will never be, and there’s a whole future full of them, too. There are the adaptations — all the books by others that I’ve wanted to adapt for the screen. There are some that I’ll adapt (I’m working on one right now), and then there are some that I won’t (I’ll never get the rights, someone else has the rights, etc etc etc) but will always dream of. There are the open writing assignments I’ll dream up plots for and fall in love with and pitch, and the studio or producer will go with something and someone else. There are the novels. The pilots. The specs.
And I love them all! And I will keep loving them, and keep coming up with more, and keep pouring my heart and soul into them, and being grateful for the ones that catch on, that get published, that (someday, Lord willing) get made, and saying “goodbye” to the ones that don’t. There are a million different reasons why projects never happen and books never get written and scripts never become movies. But the part where I struggle is this: how do you know when it’s time to say “goodbye”?
And I’m not talking about the ones that I’ve said “goodbye” to because they weren’t good. There are novels I’ve written that just weren’t good. I said “goodbye” to them and deleted them for all eternity. There are scripts I’ve written that just weren’t good, and I’ve said “goodbye” to them, buried them in my (imaginary) writing graveyard, and deleted them from my computer.
No, I’m talking about the ones that are good, or that I know could or would be good. For each of these projects, I have hundreds of pages of notes, outlines, drafts, research materials, books that I read for research, etc. For example, for a popular physics book I outlined and wanted to write (but that, for many different reasons, will probably never be finished or published!), I have at least thirty or so books that I read and studied while I was researching it. I know in my heart that this book is probably never going to see the light of day, but I cannot for the life of me convince myself that I should get rid of those books I used for my research. There’s a little voice inside my head that says “but what if you find time to write it next year? Or the year after that? Or ten years from now?”
And so those research books sit on my bookshelf in my office, alongside the other carefully-organized books that I used in research for other projects — some of which will exist and be written and be published, some of which will not. And the title and synopsis of that project are still in my gigantic “Susan’s Ultimate Writing Document” and I can’t bring myself to delete it — even though I know it will never exist!
(I’m pretty sure this means I’ll be one of those writers who, when I someday die, leaves behind a huge mess of unfinished and abandoned projects.)
Ultimately, it’s part of being a writer. It’s not that I have one script that I want to get made, or one book that I want to get published — it’s that I have hundreds of stories, and so I write and write and write as fast as I can and as much as I can in the hope that one of those movies gets made and one of those novels gets published. And for every one nonfiction book that gets written and published (hello, Production-Ready Microservices!), there are twenty others that won’t. For every autobiographical book that gets written and published (Whistleblower), there are a dozen more that won’t. For every novel that gets written and sold to a publisher and will soon be published (Horse Girl), there are, well, you get the idea.
This brings me to the actual piece of advice I want to share:
If you want to be a full-time writer, write more than one thing
Most of the people I know who dream of being a writer have one thing they want to write or one thing they have written. They have one screenplay they’ve been writing for five years. Or one novel they’ve been wanting to write since they were in college. And that’s it. Sometimes, they do write that one thing, and sometimes they even publish that one thing or it gets made into a movie or show, and sometimes that one thing is really, truly amazing.
But what I see more frequently when someone has one thing and only one thing is that nothing ever happens with it. Sometimes it’s because that one thing simply isn’t good. Sometimes that one thing is really amazing, but it’s not the right time or place and things just don’t come together in the right way (and, believe me, if I’ve learned anything in the last five years, it’s that publishing and movie-making are fickle operations, and a million things out of your control need to fall into place for a book to be published or a movie to be made).
If you have one thing you want to write, then, by all means, throw yourself into it. Write that novel. Write that memoir. Write that screenplay. Make it as good as you possibly can, and take as long as you need or want. And when it’s as good as you can possibly get it, take it out into the world and do as much as you can to get it published or to get it made.
But if you want to have a career as a writer (i.e., if, like me, you want to make a living as a writer), you can’t just have one thing. There are some writers who do write one thing and that’s all they write and that’s the only thing they ever need to write and somehow they are able to live off that one thing — but that’s not me, and that’s not most working writers today. I had to sell three — and publish two — books before I was making enough money from my writing that I could quit my day job and become a full-time writer…and I’m just getting started in my career!
If you want to have a career, you will probably have to write a lot of things. You have to write novels that might never get published. You have to write screenplays that might never be made into movies. I wrote several novels that will never be published before I wrote Horse Girl and sold it to William Morrow (it will be published either later this year or early next). For every article or op-ed or blog post or newsletter I’ve published, I’ve written hundreds that will never be published. Every year, that big document of ideas gets a little longer, my graveyard of ideas and stories gets a little bigger, and — if I’m lucky — I have one thing that’s really, really good, and maybe even one thing gets sold.
What I’m Reading: I’m late to the game but I just finished The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and it totally blew me away. One of my favorite novels I’ve ever read, without a doubt. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, so instead I’ll just recommend it: if you haven’t read it yet, get a copy ASAP and jump right in.