By Brian Kaufman
Having finished two novels and grown tired of rejections, I began to write a third novel. I had a clever idea and a marvelous, operatic ending in mind. 35.000 words in, I realized I’d dead-ended. I stuck my stack of legal pads in a box (this was before home computers walked the earth) and sent the box to the dump.
Certain the episode would set my record for futility, I later wrote a complete novel that I think of as Fish Sticks (don’t ask). The novel sucked. So, I started over and rewrote the entire book. Strike two. This one avoided the trash because computer files take up less space than legal pads and because lurking somewhere in my subconscious is the old cliché, “third time’s the charm.”
All of this begs the question, how many successful writers abandon their work?
For the princely sum of $10 a week, Edgar Allen Poe was a contributor and editor for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, publishing six installments of his novel, The Journal of Julius Rodman. After some heated arguments with the owner, Poe was fired, so he refused to complete the novel. The first civilized man’s story to cross the Rockies was published in book form, unfinished, in 1847 (and again in 2008).
Toward the end of his life, Franz Kafka worked on The Castle, a novel about a man named K who struggles to access the bureaucrats governing a small village. Some scholars believe Kafka abandoned the project sometime before his death from tuberculosis. Kafka’s friend, Max Brod, ignored the author’s dying wish to destroy any unfinished manuscripts, so versions of the novel have been published.
This isn’t like clearing your search history or getting rid of any embarrassment before your family arrives for the funeral.
Kafka wasn’t the only author hoping to erase unfinished work. Vladimir Nabokov died before finishing The Original of Laura. He’d instructed his son to destroy the manuscript, but Dimitri put it in a Swiss vault instead and later published it.
Nathanial Hawthorne wrote and discarded a fair amount of his work. An early novel called Fanshawe irked him so much that he burned every copy of the draft he could find. One copy escaped the flames and was later published. Before his death, Hawthorne wrote several romances, all of which were abandoned, unfinished.
The author of the successful The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon, spent five years failing to complete a follow-up called Fountain City. In the margins of a draft, he wrote that a “book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition.”
Mark Salzman wrote The Man in the Empty Boat about his inability to finish an early novel. Evelyn Waugh burned his unpublished first novel and tried to drown himself after a friend gave the work a bad review. (Critique groups, beware!) Luckily, a jellyfish stung Waugh, and he made his way to shore instead.
If an author doesn’t like his work or feel connected to it, the reader might not either, so giving up on a book isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Besides, writing isn’t wasted if you learn from it. Wisdom is a value that, unlike discarded books, can’t be surreptitiously published or burned.
Deciding to Shelve It