We all know about the works that don’t go well and never find their way to completion. I have a strong memory of many paintings that ate up enormous amounts of my energy, time and expensive materials but just refused to turn the corner and come back into the fold of the finished. They are my waywards. The recalitrants. The incorrigibles.
Dan Kois wrote about this in the fiction writer’s world in his piece, Burn Before Reading:
“A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition,” Michael Chabon writes in the margins of his unfinished novel “Fountain City” — a novel, he adds, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.”
I can’t help but take comfort in Kois’ assemblage of failed novels, many by writers who are prolific and successful. Some are darkly humorous about these forays into un-success: Jennifer Egan remembered her 600 page novel written when she was 22. “’I would send this book to people,’ she said, ‘and they would become unreachable. And that includes my mother.’” And Elizabeth McCracken spent over four years working on a novel before finally throwing in the towel. “’Oh my heavens!’ she said. ‘It hurt for maybe a week. And then I decided to be butch about it.’”
Being butch about bad trips down dead end roads does take some practice. It also helps to remember that the whole thing is sort of a mystery anyway. In the words of ultra-prolific Stephen King, “Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub,” he said. “Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.”