The process of creative writing generates a mountain of “waste.” We spend years writing a novel or short story, only to lose our way, set it aside, and eventually forget everything about it, even the main character’s name. Or we think we’ve gotten it right, and send it off to one agent or literary magazine after another, only to have it declined, over and over again. In an essay in Poets & Writers [March/April 2022, pages 25-29], the writer Steve Almond describes writing one “wretched” novel after another over “three long decades” until finally completing—and finding a publisher for—his debut novel All the Secrets of the World. How did he do it? By leaping “from atop a mountain of my own failures.”
How have I learned to embrace “waste” in my own writing? First, I try to respect all my attempts, no matter the outcome. I think about all the jobs I had—scooping ice cream or answering phones or cleaning houses—before I found a career in publishing that fit. Each job taught me a lesson, even if it was as simple as, “I never want to spend my summer nights pressing balls of stiff, sticky ice cream into wafer-thin receptacles again.” Similarly, there’s a lesson for me in every failed novel, short story, and poem, from a meandering plot to overworked language. Knowing what doesn’t work is important to recognizing—and writing—what does.
Second, I consider recycling! Can any part of that story or poem be salvaged, repaired, or repackaged in another form? Last year, when working on my short-story cycle, Consecration Pond, I remembered a story I’d written thirty years ago that included a scene by a pond. It was called “Frogs Like Emeralds.” I’d revised it numerous times over the years, but it still felt underwritten—and now, it was dated. Still, the key conflict between lovers with a secular and a supernatural worldview felt as fresh as ever. So I began again, retaining that conflict but changing pretty much everything else—the characters themselves, the rising action, even the climactic moment. Perhaps most importantly, I changed the voice: Instead of third-person, the story is now told in first person by one of the two lovers, who is addressing—in her imagination—her long-dead but still beloved mother, an element that raises the stakes, giving the story much greater depth and complexity. Now called “Frogs and Goddesses,” it’s the seventh story in Consecration Pond, to be published by Toad Hall Editions in August of this year.