Why it’s okay to have an affair (with other writing projects)
I have a confession to make — I'm a cheater.
I've been in a long-term relationship with my novel manuscript for many years, but lately I've been seeing a couple of other short stories on the side. Don't tell the novel; it would hurt its feelings.
This is new for me, this jumping around from project to project, and one that I think many writers and readers find hard to adjust to. Have you, like me, been programmed somewhere along the way that if you start reading a book, you must finish it?
I have such a hard time giving up on a book, even if I hate it. The same thing happens to me as a writer — I feel guilty if I don't keep with one project until it's done. "Immerse yourself in your novel," those well-meaning advice-givers say. "Check in on it every day. Keep at it. Bird by bird."
This is all good advice, don't get me wrong. Problem is, it doesn't work for me. It has never worked for me, and for many years I felt bad not having a regular writing schedule, felt like a failure when my mind strayed from the plot of my long, fat novel to those daydream ideas for an exciting short story or experimental piece of flash fiction. If only, if only, I think, and then scribble down the idea in my writing notebook and keep with the current project.
Well, no more.
My cheating ways started a few years ago when I was trying desperately to finish the stories for Bystanders, my collection that's being published in May. I needed three or four new stories to round out the collection. I even knew what the plots were. But I started out trying to write them one by one, and that's where I got stuck. I was in the middle of one story, and it started to go sour, and I got frustrated. I didn't even want to open the Word document to look at it. But the other story I had an idea for — well, that one seemed as tempting as a bowl of Cool Ranch Doritos.
So I started writing the new story, and for a week or so everything seemed awesome. The world was Technicolor. The ideas were flowing. And then — well, and then that story started having problems and issues. And the first short story I had been struggling with suddenly seemed fixable. So back I went, begging it for forgiveness.
My point in this belabored metaphor is that it’s okay to juggle multiple writing projects at the same time — in fact, it's even beneficial. Don’t believe me? Listen to the great Lydia Davis: "Having many things in progress takes the pressure off each thing, and also gives it time to ripen on its own," she writes in her essay "A Writing Habit,” which appears in the book Rule of Thumb, a great collection of essays about writing.
Davis also talks about having the patience to let a work-in-progress sit unfinished. "You work on it and then leave it alone and turn to another thing you have begun or nearly finished, and you have fresh energy to work on that, a different kind of energy, even if you were sapped by the first thing."
In my case, I don't believe Bystanders would've ever gotten written if I hadn't allowed myself the freedom to give up (temporarily) and move on to something else. If you're not having fun writing something, it's going to show. The writing is going to suffer.
This technique has served me well in my new project as well. The novel I'm writing is divided into four "books," and I've found that when I get stuck on one part of the story, it helps to jump to another one. It means I'm jumping around in time on my characters, but it works.
And whenever my current novel just seems too overwhelming, this other novel idea I have flirts heavily with me. I find that if I just take it out for a cocktail or two, just draft a few quick fun scenes, I can get it out of my system and feel refreshed, rejuvenated.
I once took a ballroom-dancing lesson, and my key takeaway (and the most terrifying advice the instructor gave) was that in order to get better, you needed to dance with different partners. If you only danced with your spouse, for instance, you'd get too comfortable, too close, and you'd never learn anything new.
But twirling with strangers every once in a while causes you to move your feet a little differently, twist a new way. Sometimes pulling away from what we think we ought to do helps us figure out what we really should be doing. And only helps us get better.
Tara Laskowski is the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly and the author of two story collections. Her newest, Bystanders, will be published in May 2016 by Santa Fe Writers Project. Keep up with all her cheating ways at taralaskowski.com.