A bold statement, I know. I make it with a crucial condition attached: No writing is ever wasted, as long as you keep writing.

In 1975 I decided that since I had written a 300-page dissertation for my Ph.D., thereby proving I could make something of that size, I would try to make something I really wanted to write: a novel. Of course, after years of higher education in which I focused on novels as much of the time as I could (my dissertation was on Anthony Trollope), I immediately found I had no idea how to write one. So I set out to try anyway.

I did what I now think is the usual thing novices have to do: I had no idea how to create a story out of whole cloth, so I started writing a narrative that was part of my not terribly exciting life with the names changed. After most of a year, I had “finished” this cringe-inducing piece of work and showed it to a T.A. of mine, Kim Stanley Robinson, who has since become a deservedly celebrated science-fiction author. “Pei,” he said, “where’s the fiction in this fiction?”

Busted. Well, what could I do? I started over. This time I attempted to tart up my life experience by adding some things my own life didn’t have much of (action, sex), thinking, I guess, that if I sprinkled these fictitious jimmies on the autobiographical sundae, it would pass for what it wasn’t.

Of course that didn’t work either. Then a very kind person (Kathryn Marshall, the author of My Sister Gone) read this crappy manuscript and said I should try writing it in the first person. That, in the end, opened the door and led me actually to begin writing fiction; so five or six years after I first started trying, I finally completed something I could truly call a novel.

It wasn’t very good.

But all that writing wasn’t wasted because I finally knew what the hell I was doing. The next novel I wrote was Family Resemblances, which got published by Random House and thereby legitimized me as “a novelist.” I got all excited and wrote another novel; I sent it off to Random House and they promptly rejected it. A colleague of mine, the poet Bill Corbett, read it and said, “It didn’t come as a story.” He was right; it was more of a Chautauqua than a series of dramatic actions.

But all that writing wasn’t wasted; for one thing, it was apparently what I had to write, and I had to get it written in order to keep on writing. Meanwhile, it was teaching me more and more about writing. The narrative shifted among several viewpoint characters, which was a technical challenge I hadn’t taken on before. Though as a novel it was too much of a talk-fest with meditative counterpoint, that made it also a major lesson in crafting dialogue and interior monologue. And that wasn’t the last novel I wrote that didn’t work; later I wrote about half a book starring Karen, the protagonist of Family Resemblances (and its sequel, From the Next Room), that didn’t work. It started to feel forced and then it lost its forward momentum and died a natural death. In a word, so what? Was it such a bad thing to have discovered, through writing, that that story didn’t have to be told? I didn’t think so then and I don’t now. If anything, I think that effort taught me a major lesson about letting go. Writing can be very hard and require a large capacity for persistence, not to say stubbornness, but along with the stubbornness you have to learn when to let go. Just because you can write your way down a certain path as a writer, that doesn’t mean you should. And though writing stuff that doesn’t work is not a waste, it’s possible to lessen the amount of time you have to spend learning the hard way.

I first learned that in the writing of Family Resemblances. Late in the first draft, near the end of the book, I was writing in a way typical of me, not knowing (and not wanting to know) what was coming next or how the book was going to end. There was a fork in the road of the story and I chose which way to go and started off in that direction. I was writing the same as before, I was well inside the world of the story as I had been for a long time, I could imagine every particular of the scene as it unfolded with no diminution of its reality. I obviously could write this. But the more I wrote my way down that road, the more I felt a nameless, unignorable sensation in my stomach. Its location felt very specific. It wasn’t a sharp pain or even an ache, but there was something ineffably wrong about it and it wasn’t going away, it was slowly getting worse. After perhaps twenty pages of this experience, I decided my stomach was trying to tell me something specific: This thing you’re writing right now? It’s not the thing you need to write. Don’t go this way. It will only take you farther and farther from where you want to go.

That was good advice. The tricky thing is that you have to learn when to trust it. You have to learn how to sort out the many passing somatic experiences that go on in the background of writing, the twinges of anxiety and dread, the fits of discouragement or euphoria, and figure out when the faint, fleeting, but definite feeling that something is not right means that something is not right. The only way to learn that is to act on the feeling and see what happens. When you discover that yes, it really wasn’t right, that that message was trustworthy, you have a brand-new powerful tool. As long as you keep writing. Otherwise, it’s as if somebody gave you a gorgeous new table saw but you never built anything with it.

The most powerful confirmation that no writing is ever wasted came about twenty years after I first started trying to write a novel.

After writing my apprentice novel that didn’t work – or perhaps simultaneous with it, I can’t remember for certain – I wrote many drafts of a long story which I thought wanted to be a novella (it was eventually published as “Vital Signs” in 1987). That story’s protagonist is an insurance agent named Tom, living in Columbia, Missouri. His wife is pregnant and he is possibly falling in love with his temporary secretary, though we never do find out what comes of that. He is definitely having some kind of existential crisis. Tom is descended from the protagonist of the apprentice novel, who also lived in Columbia, Missouri, and also worked at a mundane job, behind the counter of his camera shop. So that novel that didn’t work gave rise to “Vital Signs,” but my imagination wasn’t done yet. The fourth novel I wrote was about an insurance agent living in Columbia having, this time, an unmistakably spiritual crisis that became a strange journey into a shamanic underworld, a sojourn on the borderline between ordinary reality and another that’s equally real and totally at odds with the everyday. It was, I realized about halfway in, the novel I had been trying to write all along, even in the very first effort that didn’t work, the one I wrote in order to learn the basics of craft. So that initial impulse was far more powerful than I ever realized, and all that work had started something bigger than I ever imagined.

So much for writing being wasted. And this experience brings me to something I find strange and wonderful: it is possible to start to imagine, and start to write, a story that one is absolutely unable to complete at the time – a story that will only finally be written years later, when one has been through enough life experience, has written enough, read enough, matured enough, evolved enough to be the person who can at last write it. When you start that story not only can you not imagine where it will eventually go, you cannot imagine the person or the writer you will eventually become. But you will, and it will.

If you keep writing.


I would like to thank Cathy Day for publishing this post on her ever-interesting blog, The Big Thing. Her subject is the teaching of fiction writing, especially novels (hence the title), and I’ve already learned a lot by reading what appears there. If you enjoy this site, you’ll get a lot out of hers, too.