Notes from Purgatory: Forget the First (an Exercise in Restraint for New Writers)


Recently I was thinking about where I am in my development as a writer (I believe it’s important to take stock every so often to ground yourself and better define your goals) and I noticed an aspect of my trajectory I’d overlooked for years.

In a past Notes from Purgatory article, “Brevity. Soul. Wit.,” I detailed a time in my development where I was trying to impress my readers with verbosity and was (thankfully) rebuked by one of my university teachers.  After that experience, I remember going back to my dorm room and looking over a manuscript for a surreal adventure novel I’d been writing.  And then I remember putting it aside both physically and mentally.

The story, The Somnambulist, was supposed to be a multi-layered metaphor upon metaphor for the futility of the modern human condition as told through a quest of a suicidal man who finds his true self in a fantasy world he creates to save himself.  The idea came to me after first hearing Agaetis Byrjun by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros.  It came in vivid images that meshed so well with the music I’d been hearing that night as I drifted off to sleep.  I had to write it.  The world had to know.

The problem was that I hadn’t refined my tools enough to properly tell the story.  After hearing my teacher’s advice (“don’t sacrifice precision of language for flash and a few extra syllables”), I stopped penning The Somnabulist and waited in an effort to gain perspective.  Not writing something sounds easy, but I was crushed because it made me reevaluate my passion for storyteller.  I felt like all my hard work had been for nothing.  But now that I’m older and a bit wiser I understand that those doubts are natural and must be overcome to succeed.

A year or so later, I found the almost-completed manuscript for The Somnambulist I’d set aside and do you know what I saw?  Self-absorbed drivel.  I saw the unbalanced work of a novice, though one who’d had a budding command of the language.  Although I was embarrassed by a lot of what I read there (seriously, it’s like a thesaurus vomited all over my word processor), the act of self-evaluation put my development into perspective.  In short, The Somnambulist should have been abandoned because it was actually a sacrifice of both time and ego, a sacrifice that helped shape my craft for the better.

So my advice for writers of prose is to stuff away your first long, lofty composition.  Forget that first novelette or short story for a year.  When you revisit that story, may it grant perspective and clarity on your path to becoming a better writer.  You might be embarrassed by what you find in those old pages, but look past that to the potential you had.  Then look at how much better you are now.

Forget the work. Forgive the work. And see how great you’ve become.

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