Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 15, 2011

The Manuscript Graveyard

Every week, I ask my students to send me reflections on their reading assignments and writing, so I see not only their creative work, but their evaluation of it and the process.

Recently I received a report that after reading the essays and books, a student decided to throw out the novel she’d been revising. Her attempts at reviving it weren’t working. She saw its death as the best way out, and would turn her attention to other things.

Believe me, this wasn’t what I intended or expected. Her bravery took my breath away. Not because I haven’t abandoned novels, but I tend to let them languish in drawers, having moved on to other work, and much later taking them out realizing how limp, lusterless, yes, dead they were. They get late burials.

I admired the conviction of this writer who left no room for anyone to try to convince her otherwise. It was over. I felt sad, though I know every novel is practice for the next. Sometimes recognizing a heart that isn’t beating is wiser than trying to resuscitate or force one in where it was never meant to be. My courageous student wrote that she knows she’s a better writer than she was when she wrote that novel. Instead of thinking of this as failure – always a bad idea – she is focusing on how far she’s come. And of how much she has yet to do, with time to do it now that she isn’t wrangling with this, and she has a clearer vision.

If you can stand more sad stories, Deborah Heiligman, author of the award-winning book about Darwin, Charles and Emma, wrote Breaking Up is Hard to Do on I.N.K. Perhaps a relationship needing to be sundered is a better metaphor than sending one’s work to the morgue, but here’s an honest post about how research taking too many dead ends meant she had to separate from a subject she loved.

Writing: it can break your heart and make your stronger. Sending warm thoughts to all who’ve had to make these tough decisions recently.



  1. I have many manuscripts languishing in folders on my computer, waiting for me to renew our relationship. I’ve let go of some of my earlier works, but never buried them. I like revisiting every now and then, to see how much I’ve grown.

    • I like your way, Carol. No need to bury, but great to revisit when you can be that kind to your old writer self. Who I hope speaks to your present one with admiration and respect.

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