Writing Lessons

Don’t Be Afraid to Start Over

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By Andrea Barrett

May 5, 2014


 

The best writing advice I ever got was extremely simple, initially devastating but actually incredibly kind, liberating, and utterly transformative. It came at Bread Loaf, the first writers’ conference I attended, where I went as a contributor the summer before I turned 30. After workshopping my story, Nicholas Delbanco—a brilliant teacher, as well as a wonderful writer—asked me if I’d written anything else and, when I confessed to having with me the manuscript of a novel I’d been writing and revising for almost six years, offered to read it.

Only much later, teaching at conferences myself, did I fully appreciate what an unusual and generous gesture that was: who asks for extra reading when immersed in a sea of student manuscripts? Nick read my grubby pages, promptly met with me to discuss them, and gently let me know that the novel on which I’d spent so long was rubbish. I had to teach for years to grasp the unusual generosity of that, too: how hard it is to give a tough opinion!

The news came deftly padded with reassurance about my probable ability to write, the not-bad story I had written, the things I’d learned writing all those drafts, which would surely help me with what I wrote next, but the kernel of his advice was simple: Throw it out, and move on. Take all you learned writing that and make something new. Afterwards I cried, I fussed, I crashed around—and then I did what he said. What a huge relief to shed those mauled and tortured pages! And how quickly, freed from them, did I begin to write again. First a stab at one new novel, which I discarded almost gaily after nine months’ work, realizing it too was wrong; and then another, which would become my first published novel, Lucid Stars.

That advice made me a writer: both in the specific moment (I couldn’t throw out that book until someone I trusted made me; I couldn’t write something better until I did) and since then as a guiding principle. I throw out things all the time, still; sometimes things on which I have, as I did with that first novel, spent not only months but years. What’s important, what the attempt taught me about writing, the material I’m exploring, where I want to go next, always survives.

Andrea Barrett is the author of nine works of fiction, including The Air We Breathe, a novel, and Archangel, a collection of stories. She lives in Western Massachusetts.

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