Last week, I worked with a client who’d reached a crossroads in their writing life. After months of hard work on some essays, two book-length projects had bubbled up. They were extremely passionate about one of them, but then they thought of the memoir draft they’d finished late last year, and wondered if they had permission to move on. But quitting a writing project is bananas, right?
A lot of time, tears, and energy had been put into that memoir draft. Completing it felt like such a victory. They’d set it aside for three months, so they could return to it with fresh eyes, which, if you don’t know, is a best practice.
Three months turned into six and then a year. The person worked diligently on other projects, but every time they came back to this one, a part of them said “not yet.”
They’ve struggled with whether this problem is procrastination or whether the manuscript genuinely needs more time to marinate.
Not working on it feels like failure—especially when, like so many writers, they’ve told people they’re working on a book, and have spent endless months saying “not yet,” when loving friends and family members asked if it’s been published.
Not returning to this project feels like failure, but the energy just isn’t there.
We worked through several questions, but here’s the one I want to unpack for you: If you move on without completing a project, does that mean it’s a failure?
The ego sees completion of a writing project as publication with all the awards and accolades your writing can get.
But the real reason we create art is to settle something inside us that’s out of alignment. That unanswered question compels us to write.
After some first drafts, we realize the answer is simply for us.
Reason One for Quitting a Writing Project: It’s Personal
Because we live in a time rife with social media confessions, not sharing can seem out of sync with the world’s expectations. Yet not everything we write is for public consumption.
This was true for a client of mine who wrote a book to heal her family, and for a classmate of mine in a Memoir in a Year class.
He was co-writing a book with his daughter, because he wanted to connect with her after a lifetime of painful conflicts. We’d spent two years working on our projects, pouring our hearts out on the page.
On the final day of class, when asked about what was next, he said for him the project had served its purpose. He and his daughter were closer than ever, and writing side by side about their biggest traumas had settled the hurt between them.
Reason Two for Quitting a Writing Project: It’s Not About Publication, It’s About Faith
Sometimes the purpose of a book project (or essay or short story) is simply to prove that you have what it takes to write it. That might sound trite, but writing a first draft of anything is an act of faith, because while you might believe you have what it takes, you’ve yet to do it.
Once that draft is complete, you’re no longer operating from faith. You know you’re capable. That can open doors for future projects you could create or structures you could master because you’re no longer working on the basics.
Reason Three for Quitting a Writing Project: It’s About Making Space
At other times, the writing is needed to process something that makes way for the projects that are supposed to be published.
I came to this realization in 2018, when after four years of work on a coming-of-age memoir about why I left home, I realized the project had a fundamental flaw. Most of my insights arrived after my brother’s suicide—a story too big to share as an afterthought, or to summarize in a few “stay tuned for the next book” comments.
At first, I fought the realization that this book might not be the one I published. I’d worked damn hard on it, and I’d been talking about it for years. But when I let it go, I quickly wrote the first draft of the memoir that’s currently on submission.
In retrospect, that draft was so easy to craft because the things that would’ve obscured this book’s purpose were healed by the work I’d done on that coming-of-age memoir. The injuries I’d processed and the people I’d forgiven (most notably myself), had given me a new perspective on my experiences.
The need to let go of projects isn’t unique to new writers. Brevity Founder, and creative nonfiction master, Dinty Moore has talked many times about how letting go of one book led him to the one he’s most proud of.
Completion comes from the Latin word complere, which means to fill up. Sometimes, what gets filled up is a hole inside us, or a faith that turns into evidence, or a question that gets answered and no longer plagues us.
So, as you prepare for the end of the year, I want you to go back to the list of things you accomplished and don’t just celebrate them, name what they filled up for you. When you know a project’s purpose, you can wisely choose whether to keep working on it, or to say thank you for what it’s done, and then move on.
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