Once upon a time, there was a story I couldn’t write.
The idea for it came to me, as all new story ideas do, like a sparkling jewel of inspiration dropped down from the heavens. And like all new story ideas, I couldn’t wait to take a crack at it. I outlined, I researched, I wrote scenes I knew would never make it into the book but were simply there to help flesh out characters and happenings that would occur offstage from the main narrative.
But after months and months of work, of staying up late and waking up early in order to snatch a few extra minutes of writing time from the edges of my day, I realized I was stuck. Plot points kept falling apart, characters kept doing things that made no sense, entire scenes were crumbling into piles of mismatched words. After all that work, after I’d filled several notebooks with research minutiae that would never make it onto the final pages, it dawned on me why this particular story wasn’t coming together.
I wasn’t a good enough writer to pull it off.
The book was beyond me. All of the narrative threads I needed to weave, the mystery, the identity of the antagonist, the red herrings, the misdirection I had so carefully outlined over and over again in hopes of making it somehow—SOMEHOW—morph into something resembling a cohesive story… I simply couldn’t do it.
The problem was, I didn’t want to give up. So I kept plugging away at it, attacking the story from new angles, introducing new characters, removing others, reordering scenes like a manic squirrel trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle without a finished picture to guide me.
After ripping it apart and attempting to put it back together, all while hoping for some magical resolution that would make everything suddenly click into place, I finally had to take a step back and admit to myself that I wasn’t talented enough to do it. My writing skills were not at all equal to the outline I had in my head.
Because in my head, it worked. The characters did what they were supposed to, what suited their… well, their characters. The plot flowed, the prose sparkled, the dialogue wasn’t pointless or merely there to explain things to the befuddled reader. But every time I tried to siphon it from my head to the page, the result always failed, no matter how many fixes I threw at it.
It’s not easy to admit to yourself you’re not good enough. To try and to then fail again (and again and again) is no good for anyone’s self-esteem. Or sanity. Or the well-being of those living in close proximity to them. But the incredible thing about writing is that you’re able to set things aside, to go back to other things, other stories, until your literary skill set catches up with that one impossible story you want to create.
I’ve put half-finished stories away for years, relegating them to the proverbial drawer while I continued to read and write and critique other people’s work. And I needed those years to learn, to recognize the problems in my own writing. I had huge gaps in my literary knowledge (I still do, but here’s to hoping that the gaps are beginning to narrow) that needed to be filled. Yes, I may not have been good enough to sit down and make everything in a certain story work, but just because I couldn’t manage it when I was in my twenties didn’t mean I couldn’t bring it all together nearly a decade later.
When you’re a writer (and in most areas of life), failing doesn’t mean you’re finished. It may mean you have to stop for a bit and turn your attention to other projects, but it doesn’t mean that once you take a stab at a story, you can never have another go at it. And you can keep working on it, even while you’re not really “working” on it. Research can continue. And the process of living and gaining knowledge can prepare you for the day when you finally open up that drawer, blow off the layers of dust that have collected on the pages, and figure out exactly why you couldn’t make that sucker work the first time around. And this time, you might be ready to fix it.