Six ways to look at an abandoned story.

one fern

This week I am answering a letter that I received from Stacy, a writer in Toronto. She asked me such a good question, and I wanted to share it with you.

The question: what do you do with an unfinished story that you started a while ago and put away to rest? What do you do when you come back to it, and it feels like so much has changed since you left it behind?

“I started a story about 6 weeks ago,” Stacy writes, “and I wrote quite a bit, in a short time. [I wrote] while [my baby] slept or napped. And then various aspects of Life happened, and soon the story lost momentum, and with it, the consistency of my attention, care, interest, investment. Now what? Do I return to it, even though I know the narrative now might be less than engaged, or possibly completely different? I want to return to the story. I even know how it ends. What does one do when this happens? I don't want it to be yet another work started, and didn't finish. And if so, then I have to ask, is all writing meant to be something, meant to be finished - if started? I mean, are we supposed to finish everything we start, or are we to finish only what we start, because we want to, need to? I want to. For the sake of my story, and my sanity, and moreover, my writerly well-being and self-esteem. But then if I want to, is it then in vain, especially since so much now seems so far away from the day I started? Ugh. Help!"

Sound familiar? If so here are six things you can do right away.

1. Know that everything you write always has the possibility to be important and meaningful. A story becomes real because of what you put into it when you write it. You breathe life into it with your care and attention. It won't feel alive without that. When you write with intention, your story becomes true, regardless of how much time has passed. The important thing is that you always write with intention - the actual content comes second, believe it or not.

2. When you come to a story after time away, ask yourself: where can I find the truth in this story now? What is this story to me today? Many things might have changed in your life since you first wrote it. You may be a different writer now. This happens often when you're submitting stories to journals. A story comes back to you after 8 months away with a rejection letter attached to it. You hardly remember what you were trying to do when you wrote it the first time. If you try to go back and write the story according to what you thought it was before, you will miss what the story has to offer you right now. And if you abandon it because you feel like you don't know it anymore, you will also miss what the story has to offer you right now.

3. Remember that your story is always smarter than you are. If you treat a good story with respect as you write it, it will always offer you something new. It will match you, wherever you are in your life.

4. Relax: your writing doesn't have an expiration date. The stuff in your notebook doesn't care what day, month, or year it is. You can jot down a note today about the way sunlight shines into your glass of cranberry juice, and that detail might not show up in a story until five years from now. Something you thought was a story last year might be character development for something new you will write next year. Embrace this infuriating uncertainty, know that your story doesn’t work on a linear time continuum, and use this to your advantage.

5. Expect that going back to an old story will feel weird at first. That’s because you're introducing yourselves to each other after a long time away. Put in the effort, and you can and will discover your story again, no matter where you are. Be willing to accept that it is a different story now, and that it has something to new to tell you. Try not to fight with it though - that's unpleasant. If you find that you're just fighting with it, just put it away again for a while.

6. Try not to romanticize your relationship with your old story. Or how perfect it could have been if you'd only finished it six weeks ago, when you started it. Daydreaming about "what could have been" is not useful, and it's just another way your mind is distracting you from the work of writing today. Right now, your story has something to tell you about who and where you are at this very moment. Don't look back. Trust that you have grown since you last saw it, and go forward with curiosity and respect.

A story is not a static object - it's a moving entity that is a reflection of your own energy. So of course everything you write is worth pursuing, if and when you choose to pursue it.

Of course, it's also totally fine to start something new instead! What's important is that you're committed to writing whatever you write, whenever you're writing it.

Thanks to Stacy for this awesome question.

Okay. What is the most troubling writing roadblock that you're up against? What is the one biggest question you have about your writing right now? Send an email to support@sarahseleckywritingschool.com and let me know.

xo,

Sarah” width=

Read what you want to write.
Dear memoir: I'm afraid of you.

17 comments

Laura Gates

Thanks Sarah, for this post. I have re-written so many stories, and some of them still are sitting waiting for me to breathe new life into them before I am ready to release them. Until now I thought this was a bad thing! It is so helpful to hear they do not have an expiration date! Love the permission in that.
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Laurie Rosenfeld

Sarah, this is a timely post for me. I have started more than a dozen blog posts and every one of these tips is golden. I especially love the reminder that when you write with intention, the story never really goes stale. (A paraphrase!) This is a keeper. Thanks!
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Sue Ann Gleason

I love so many things about his post I don't know where to begin but the phrase I'll take with me right now is: "The important thing is that you write with intention—the actual content comes second believe it or not." Somehow that gave me an opening to jump back into the book I started a year ago and then stopped midstream because the waters got murky and I lost my way. Thank you for a beautiful and though provoking piece.
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Kathleen Prophet

Yes! to writing that is a living thing! And that it is up to us to infuse ourselves, our energy of who we are this day into a piece that may be years old... while retaining that moments experience. I recently experienced this, thought it was sacrilege to tamper with such a piece from my past. Yet I was encouraged to do so and it was only infused with more life rather than took any away. I love your respect for the art. No wonder you are well loved by your writing... and thus well loved by your audience. Really gorgeous piece. Thank you!
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Laura Gates

I just wanted to add that I am reading Rosanne Cash's memoir and in the section I read last night she talks about finding one line of writing she wrote when she was 12 years old that she found years later when her mom sent her old school papers, and it was on metaphors, and she took the line (which she really fell in love with when she first wrote it)and wrote a song with it. So you never know when things will serve you!
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Sarah Selecky

You are so welcome! Perfectly paraphrased, by the way.
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Sarah Selecky

You are most welcome. I'm glad that stuck out for you! I have to remind myself about that one sometimes. It's a goodie.
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Sarah Selecky

Thank you, Kathleen! Sometimes when you go back to an old piece you feels like you might "break" it. It's so good to hear that you pushed through, and wrote something infused with new vitality.
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Sarah Selecky

Oh my goodness, this is *so* good. I'm totally saving this gem for future self-reminders. That's exactly what I'm talking about! Thank you, Laura!
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Tracey Allred

I absolutely loved reading this Sarah! It came at such elegant and perfect timing and I appreciate the advice! I love that there is no time limit on our creative so to speak. And thanks to Laura Gates for sharing the story about Rosanne Cash. So good indeed.
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Sarah Selecky

Thanks Tracey!
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5 (More) Favourite Blogs About Writing | Carrie Mumford

[...] Sarah isn’t a blogger in the traditional sense: she only posts once a month or so, and I think officially her articles are posted to her website, rather than a blog. Nonetheless, her posts are so good I felt she needed to be added to my list. A few of my recent favourites include Your Writing Doesn’t Take Time, It Makes Time and Six Ways to Look at an Abandoned Story. [...]
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Sharon Overend

Thanks Sarah for this post. I find that when I am working on a short story I HAVE to leave it alone for a spell. Most of my stories come to me in wild bursts and I work frantically to catch as much of it as I can, then I walk away - sometimes for months. At times the step away is welcome, but more often than not I feel like I am abandoning my baby on the church steps. Inevitably though, when I feel the pull to return to the work, it is with a fresh and broader prospective.
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Kelli Landon

Thank you so much for these tips!! I have many unfinished stories I have forgotten about. When I find them, I just end up scrapping them or I will use the same characters for a different plot. These tips surely help!
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Loretta Stephens

Thank you so much for writing this! I have the same problem as Stacy-but my stories are a few years old-and I've often found myself daydreaming of what could have been with those pieces of writings and pondering what I am to do with them now. After reading your tips I feel much better about my stories now. Thank you, again :-)
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Thank you for this blog post! This is a subject that is rarely discussed, from what I have seen. @Kathleen: I know what you mean about "sacrilege." Happy writing, everyone!
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This is so good, Sarah! Have a lot of writing that may have potential for development as a short story or perhaps even as a novel. Is there a way to determine if I am a short story writer at my core or if I'm really a novellist?
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