Ask: How Do You Know When It’s Time to Move On?

From Jessica:

How do you know when it’s time to give up on a manuscript? When you’ve spent so much time with a piece and it’s not getting picked up… How do I know it’s time to shelve it?

Dear Jessica,

A timely question for me right now, which is funny because you asked this of me last summer. Both of us sitting at a fancy tiki bar with our fancy tiki drinks with a bunch of other fancy writers, one of whom had a birthday, and all of us talking about our work. You asked this question. At the time, my manuscript was in a lonely purgatory and I didn’t have the heart to answer.

At the time, I had spent over four years with that book manuscript we spoke of. Four years and four major revisions and a year of querying and a year of full requests from agents and a year of requests for revisions from those agents, one of which came through an exciting and debilitating phone call, all of which resulted in painful passes. When you asked your question, I had gone a year without looking at that manuscript, without thinking about it, not because I just didn’t want to but because it was depressing and I needed to be in a state of not depressing for just a little bit.

The year off from the manuscript had been a good one—stories picked up for publication, invitations to read my work on stage under actual spotlights, essays on writing published to sites that ten years ago I would scour for clues on how to become a writer. This was the year I began teaching classes on how to become a writer (also simply known as how to take yourself seriously and trust yourself and your work enough to stand behind it.)

All this good stuff and still the nagging feeling of something unfinished. I had started book two. Book two was a flagging mess of ideas that reminded me of how lonely and confused I was during the first year of book one. All made furthermore depressing because I had left off book one with the distinct feeling that it was broken and would remain broken and I had finally reached the point where maybe, truly, I simply wouldn’t go back to fix it.

I remember saying this to so many people: It’s got a fatal flaw. No matter how many times I re-arranged the pieces, added more pieces, attempted to square the story over and over and over again, it never felt correct. It’s got a fatal flaw, I would shrug. Nothing I can do.

That’s the state of mind I was in about it when you asked that question that night. And at the time, I can’t remember if I answered or didn’t answer—I’m sure if I answered, I answered with some kind of joke because that’s what I do when something makes me a little sad. I might have shrugged, insisted I had washed my hands of the story. Its time was done, on to the new one. And yet, I opted to leave the question unanswered.

I left the question unanswered for months after that night but I thought about it often. The truth was I didn’t know when a person knew it was time to give up on a manuscript. Giving up seemed like such a weak option, quitting. A black and white answer to what was so not a black and white problem. Calling it moving on didn’t help—it just felt like abandonment. Allow it to die or pretend it never existed? Terrible options. I put it out of my mind. I hate leaving questions unanswered but this one in particular was too terrible to contemplate too closely.

Fast forward some months. I am at critique group. A friend comes in sharing excerpts of a book I’d seen before. The voice is so clear. I knew how hard she’d worked on it and was working on it still. My own book knocked lightly. I went home with my heart pounding.

So I pulled it back out. The idea of it shimmered in my mind; I still loved this story, still believed in it. I sent it to an editor to read out of sheer curiosity, just to see, just to make sure. After she read it, I re-read the book myself. It was all there, clear as day. How to square the story.

You have a book. You have a book! the editor said, over and over. I did have a book—finally, after years of arguing with the manuscript, it decided I had suffered enough and made itself clear. The answer showed itself, the puzzle piece that connects all the others. It didn’t even hardly require any rewriting. I worked at break-neck speed to edit and rework the book because to do anything else seemed wrong.

So here now, months later, I have the answer to the question: The work will tell you when it’s done.

When it’s done, it is done in a dead way. If it’s not a story that is to be, it won’t last long. That shimmer will go dormant and you’ll look at it wondering why you ever thought any of it was a good idea. Elizabeth Gilbert describes this as ideas floating in the ether, waiting to land on a person. When the idea no longer wants to be realized, it will leave you and it look as dead to you as the inanimate stack of papers it is.

But if it’s not done, it will remain silent and wait until you are ready. Or better yet, it will wait until it is ready, at which point it will insist on being resumed.

So when you asked me that question, I didn’t know how to answer. Because the book wasn’t dead—it was dormant. It was waiting for me. And having been writing long enough to trust the process but not long enough to trust myself, I couldn’t give a straight answer to the question.

I sent that book on its final pass of submissions just last month. Within one week, I had seven requests. One more week and I had a call. One more week, I had more calls. One more week and I signed a contract. It all happened so quickly it may have re-constituted my entire thoughts on the supernatural.

I am now represented by Kerry D’Agostino of Curtis Brown, Ltd., who loves the story and believes in it as much as I do, who asked over and over again How did you do it? How did you write this? The short answer is that it’s a long answer, one of those funny stories that have no ending.

If you would like to submit a question for a “Dear You” post, please email me at lisa.k.bubert(at)gmail.com. 

How to Build a Public Library

Dear you,

My day begins and ends with some form of writing. I wake up while it’s still dark, make the coffee, and go upstairs. The attic is only partially insulated so in the winter there are blankets included on my chair. The kitten does her own duty—she jumps to my lap as soon as I’m settled and settles herself in her rightful place: space heater, mascot, teeny monster for now asleep. I organize the various slips of post-its carrying seeds of ideas littered across my desk; I choose which document to open on my computer that particular day. I block the internet. And for an hour and a half, I work.

And then, session over, it’s done. I close everything down. Rouse the kitten and carry her and my empty coffee mug downstairs. It’s 7:30 am—time for the other work.

My other work is the library. What to wear today—what will we be doing. Approachable but professional casual for those long days on the desk. My attempt at business professional for the days with meetings. Lately, it’s been jeans and a t-shirt because we are in the process of building a library.

When I got a library job here in Nashville, I was lucky enough to get the librarian spot at the branch that sorely needed a makeover. It’s one of our larger branch locations with some of the highest foot traffic and, to be honest, it was a very sad building. Carpets stained, furniture cracked and beat up from years of abuse. The whole place a dim reminder of the nineties and not in a good way. I loved it, despite its sadness.

I loved it, because for the first time in my library career, I felt a real duty to this community. In all libraries, we are doing the Lord’s work. But in this library, with these patrons who needed help opening email accounts so they could apply for jobs online, for housing, for food assistance, these patrons who just wanted a quiet, safe place, and those children who needed safe people—in this library, the Lord’s work was always close at hand.

It was in the way we sat with them at the computers and assured them that it would be okay, we would get this frustrating thing figured out. It was in the way we talked aimlessly with people who just needed to talk. It was the kids who wanted daily hugs. (In Texas, I had a no hugging policy because I didn’t want it to be misconstrued. That has now changed. When a child screams your name upon seeing you and runs at you with a hug, you have no choice but to comply and mean it.) And all the while, we did this holy work in an old building with bad lighting, with a layout that was outdated, with an aura of dimness. Not for lack of trying by the staff obviously, but it’s hard to fight the environment, something these patrons knew very well.

I had been told when I got the job that they would be shuttering the branch soon to renovate it. After a year there, they finally did. The designer asked us what we wanted to see in the new building. I made my requests—natural light, earth tones, a calming atmosphere, long sight lines, a children’s area that looked like it belonged to children. And then we went our separate ways for the year.

The year away from the branch has been a big one for me—I got to know the system very well, got to know everyone in it. I worked downtown and loved every minute of it. I re-wrote a novel, got addicted to checking email throughout the day to see if it’s a yes or a no (and it was always a no, up until last week.) I bought a house with an attic just for me; I grew my literary life. And now, the year almost done, it’s time to go back to the branch. It’s time to build the library.

I had checked in on the branch during renovation, nodded at the wood framing as the designer walked us through and told us what would be where. I couldn’t picture any of it. It wasn’t until the first day back, everything painted, the furniture in place, and all of us back to put books on the shelves and settle our work stations that I could finally feel it.

The building had been painted in soft greens and oranges. The floor was wood vinyl, with the appearance of hardwood but the noise reduction of carpet. The desks were all dark wood-paneled, the furniture very mid-century/70s modern. I could see from one end of the building to the other where the reading room ended in large, open windows of soft sunlight. The children’s area—my children’s area—was bright, playful, with a well-lit story room and stained glass windows featuring Aslan, the protective lion king of Narnia.

Reader, I cried. And then I set to unpacking the books.

I learned that there is nothing more satisfying than arranging a book display in anticipation of all the patrons who will come searching. I hand picked items that reflected the community, stories I knew they would want to read, covers with black and brown and white faces all smiling, all deserving of their spot in the light. I sat at the desk and envisioned it—the ways the community had changed in the past year, the ways it had stayed the same. The regulars sure to return and those that maybe moved on by now. And I thought again of them all and how deserving they each were of this light, this beauty, this perfect space.

They will come in again tired and bedraggled, some carrying too many bags, some in need of a shower. There will still be children who need hugs, patrons who just want to talk to someone, anyone. But they will do it now in a clean, well-lighted place. They will do it in a place of dignity and beauty, a library deserving of them.

I will start my mornings with writing. I will go to work and put books in the hands of people who need them. I will come home and pick up my own book, one that I need to round out that day and help me write for tomorrow. And then I will go to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again.

And that is how we build a public library.