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Some of my abandoned stories.

I usually give up on my work.  Most stories I’ve written, there comes a point where the story stumps me and I quit, abandon it.  I put all the drafts, notes, diagrams, and drawings into a folder, shut it and put it on the stack of other abandoned stories.  Then I move on, hoping the next story works out.  For a while, it does work out—writing seems to happen on its own, words know where to go.  The writing feels like reading—I’m writing to find out what happens next—which is my favorite place to be.  Inevitably, I hit that wall again.  And I look at the file folders of abandoned stories and feel a kind of panic.  I begin thinking like someone trying to save her sixth marriage (or so I imagine):  No matter what, I’m not leaving this story.  I don’t care how awful this story is, I will make it work.  And so with that in my head like a mantra, I hammer on, pounding the poor would-be story to death.

The thing I forget in those moments is that I usually do go back to those abandoned stories.  I go back sometimes weeks later, and sometimes years later.  The character’s voice returns to my head, or I find out from either life or from another story what needs to happen, and I return. Sometimes I go back and leave them several times until the stories finally feel right, completed.  This doesn’t happen with every abandoned story—just ones that absolutely need to be told.

This isn’t a failure.  It has taken me years to realize and accept that giving up on a story is the way that I work.  It has to happen that way, or else the stories wouldn’t happen at all.  The problem is that I’ve kept an image in my head of how writers should write—and therefore an ideal way of how I should work.

I first met multi-media artist Jenifer Wofford in Prague when I was at that particular point of defeat.  I had returned from an Artist-in-Residence program in South Bohemia to research and finish a draft of a novel, and by the end of the residency, I felt like I’d failed at what I set out to do.  I had abandoned the novel, and though I’d moved on to work on other stories, I felt the weight of that failed novel in my gut—as well as literally in my bag.  Jenifer helped me drag the monster up all those flights of stairs to my room in the hotel where I was staying, and where she was working.  I apologized, as she took one end and I took the other, for the weight of research, books, paper drafts, and whatever else I thought I needed.

A few weeks ago, I saw Jenifer again, as she came to Seattle to participate in an excellent group show, War Baby/Love Child, at the Wing Luke Museum.  Among many other things, we talked about how we work.  I saw myself in her process, how she tends to work on several pieces at once—that is, beginning one, then leaving it, beginning another.  She leaves behind a lot of open doors.  She said that sometimes when she stops working on a piece and is at work on another, she learns something about the piece she left.  Then she can go back to it—and the first piece becomes something that it wouldn’t have been had she not abandoned it first.  Her work informs her work, setting off a sort of conversation between pieces of art.  For this to happen, it’s essential that the doors be open.

Now I think of my file folders as open doors, colorful doors that open into one another, whose inhabitants share secrets with each other—and occasionally with me.

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