For the Stock

There’s a bag in my freezer full of chicken bones and odds and ends of veggies. When we dice a little more onion than we need, we toss the extra in there. We add the nubs of the carrots. Even the stems of herbs. When it’s full, we make stock. We just upend the whole bag into our biggest pot and add water, boil it, simmer it all day, strain it out. It makes the most wonderful soup stock, dark and rich and savory. It’s comforting. It’s healing. It’s liquid gold. And from what? Basically a bag of garbage.

I write, I teach writing, I critique other people’s writing. This is the work of my every day. And what each of those things usually comes down to is slicing away the bruised spots on my own and other people’s work. And it’s hard. For me, for them, for everyone. Letting go is hard. Each word we conjure is part of our hearts and minds, and cutting them is painful. Let alone whole scenes, whole characters, whole subplots. And sometimes, yes, an entire book has to be set aside. That can be devastating. Years of work, sometimes, for various reasons, must be abandoned.

So I like to think about that bag in the freezer. Some of what you cut out from your writing just needs to go in the compost. Potato peels? Nah. But some of it can be stashed away for later. And although it’s unlikely that it’ll reappear in this exact same form in another project, it can still go into the soup of your imagination. Its flavors, its nutrients, can enrich something else. I truly believe that no writing is ever wasted. Some writing is destined to be printed between the covers of a book. But some serves to make you a better writer or simply a better human. And some will be recycled, in a strange and mysterious alchemy, into another project.

If a book project is making you miserable, sometimes you need to muddle through, butt in the chair and nose to the grindstone. That’s what most of the advice for writers will tell you—that writing is about suffering, and we must endure the suffering in order to create our art. Which is true, partly. This work isn’t easy, and if you stop just because it’s hard, you won’t get anywhere. But sometimes we suffer and we aren’t making art, and that’s just silly, in my opinion. Sometimes it’s okay to let yourself off the hook and start something fresh.

Allow yourself to work on something that brings you joy. Put that book in the drawer, let it simmer away on the back burner for awhile. How do you know when to do this? I’m not sure. Ask your writing group. Notice if you’ve been making excuses to not write because you’ve come to dread it. Don’t ever let one project become more important than yourself as a writer. You are bigger than that one book. It’s okay to move on. Remind yourself that no writing is ever wasted.

If it’s not a whole book but just a scene/line of dialogue/secondary character/dream sequence/flashback/beautiful description/amazing metaphor that’s on the chopping block, it can still be hard to let go. If you’re resisting cutting it (killing your darlings, so to speak), but you know it’s not actually making the story stronger, this might be a moment to think about that bag in the freezer. It can be easier to let go of those precious bits of writing when you drop them someplace else. Perhaps you could dedicate a ratty notebook to this job, or perhaps you could create a document on your desktop called “FOR THE STOCK.” If your critique partner or agent or editor has X-ed out something or filled the margin with question marks, you can stubbornly write STET over all of it and dig in your heels. And you should, if you truly believe that it is serving the story. But if it isn’t and some part of you knows that, or if several of your trusted readers have all dubbed the same bit superfluous, then it’s time to chuck it into the FOR THE STOCK DOC.

Later, if you’re ever wandering around the no-man’s-land of writers block, you can look at that hodgepodge of stuff for inspiration. Or if you’re stuck on something in a different project, go poke around in there and see if your past self has some unexpected presents to offer. Maybe there’s something in that mess that will spark a solution for you. That perfect metaphor will unlock this new scene, or that rejected character will finally find a home. Maybe that flashback will become a prequel. Maybe, someday, your subconscious will boil it all down into liquid gold.