There used to be a lot of half-started essays and ideas on my write list. I’d look at them later and think, “What a stupid idea. This sounds like a spoiled six-year-old wrote it. What a waste of time.”
Then I’d toss the idea on the pile and move on. No point in pursuing a dead-end idea, a wasted effort, or so I thought.
Over time, I’d return to my folder of ideas less and less. I got busy writing blog posts about trying to procrastinate less and write more, and I still had this folder stashed on my desktop. After a while, it got to be a weight I was dragging around on the desktop of my computer. I wondered if I should store new ideas in a new place.
Instead, I’ve been picking one of those old projects out of the slush pile and working through them, trying to bring them across the finish line, instead of leaving them undone. Here’s why you should do this, too.
1. There’s a difference between “difficult” and “dead end.” Not all ideas come easy, and just because connecting the dots is difficult doesn’t mean your idea isn’t worthwhile, doesn’t make sense, or couldn’t get published. When I used to think, “This idea doesn’t lead anywhere,” I made it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now, I don’t think about my ultimate goal, and just follow where the idea leads me, which has given me a lot more finished work.
2. Finishing a project restores some of your faith in your own ideas. Looking over my folder of dead projects made me feel like a terrible writer. Thinking that you have no good ideas can take a toll on your confidence, so think of finishing your half-done projects as a kind of writerly hygiene, meant to keep you healthy and producing more work.
3. You need to write about the really important topics more than once. One of the main themes of my work is the concept of “home,” as in, the place where you feel you belong. I’ve wrestled with this topic in various forms—essay, book-length work—for about five years, many times on those so-called “dead-end” works. All of that work, and my recent work in finishing many of those pieces, gives me brand-new places to explore in this topic that would have been left in the dark had I not spent so much time on it.
4. Lightening your writing baggage is revitalizing. I know revitalizing is a word typically reserved for the blurb on a bottle of middling brand shampoo, but the more ideas you pursue to the end, the more room you have for new ideas to grow. To use a completely different metaphor, it empties your plate (mentally speaking) and you feel much more ready to take on something new.
5. You wind up with unexpectedly good writing. Trudging through passages because they’re not coming easily doesn’t mean that the writing will be any less good than when the words are flowing effortlessly. In fact, I find that when more work is required, the writing seems to hold up better under later editorial scrutiny, but maybe that’s just me.
Do you have a slushpile of dead-end writing? What will you do with it?