Monday, October 31, 2011

Knowing When to Quit & Move On

There's a character in Camus' novel The Plague who spends several hundred pages writing a novel.  He writes the first sentence . . . then writes the first sentence again . . .then writes the first sentence again.  Hundreds of pages later, he's still working on the first sentence of his novel.

Contrast this character with Gary Larson and Bill Watterson, who in 1995 each announced that they were retiring their popular comic strips The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, respectively, both wanting to go out on top before their life's work became stale and predictable.

How do you know when it's the right time to quit writing something and move onto something new?  Here are some things that don't tend to serve as reliable barometers for me:
--length of the work
--length of time I've spent on it
--number of people whose feedback I've incorporated
--how hard the writing is, though this comes closer than the others

But if those measures don't work reliably, how do we teach students to listen to their intuition and say "when" on a particular project?

For some students, it's a matter of accepting writing as an imperfect medium: the story on the page might never live up to the story in their head, but it has the immutable advantage that it can now live in others' heads too.  The science fiction writer Holly Lisle says (in her One-Pass Manuscript Revision:  "the definition of a writing career is: Write a book. Write another book. Write another book.  Nowhere in that description is included: Take one story and make it a monument to every idea you ever had or ever will."

With that in mind, I have two suggestions for how to help students say "when" on a project and move into something else:

1) Celebrating what they've accomplished, to help them say farewell to their former project in style.  Food helps--even Goldfish crackers and fancy grape juice can elevate a "sharing our work" session to a real celebration.  Published writers have book launch parties for lots of reasons, including selling books of course.  But book launch parties also feel something like graduation parties or bar mitzvah celebrations, marking a transition from a "before" to an "after."  They're all rites of passage, and food helps to emphasize the "rite."

2) And jumping right into the next project celebrates the "passage."  It's a fine line, of course: if students are too excited about whatever's coming next, there might be some who refuse to finish the current project at all--but with no inkling of what's on the horizon, some might be understandably reluctant to leave the comfort zone of their current work-in-progress.  Introducing just a hint of the next project around the edges of the current work can help students--and us, as teachers--to know when to say "when."

Personal Note:
On the topic of leaving one's comfort zone, I've had some big transitions this year as a writer and teacher of writing.  Now that my daughter is six and my son is about to turn three, I've gone back to full-time work in a non-teaching arena in order to support my writing (and family).  While I look forward to working with schools and presenting at conferences and workshops, I'm planning to shift my writing energies away from regular blogging in the coming months.  I have so much gratitude to my fellow bloggers for the opportunity to participate in Pencil Tips, and to all of the Pencil Tips readers who gave me something to participate in.  I look forward to continuing this learning and these relationships long after saying "when." I hope you will join me in welcoming Alison Hart, a teacher and author of over 20 books for children and teens who will be joining the Pencil Tips bloggers in six weeks. To learn more about Alison, please visit

Pamela Ehrenberg 

1 comment:

  1. I haven't been a subscriber too long but I do enjoy the posts here. I especially like your idea of celebrating what was accomplished, even if the project was eventually abandoned. I agree that food is a good way to celebrate.

    Linda A.