Once upon a time—which is how all worthwhile stories begin—I knew a man named Herman who had reached a moment when there was more of his life to look back upon than lay ahead.
This would be a perfect time, Herman told me, to “sum up,” or to sort through memories and other junk to find what was worth keeping and what should be left beside the long road.
I hope I’m decades from the road’s end, but it’s certainly closer than the beginning. So, I’ve been sorting through the stuff that has drifted around me like caliche dust in a haboob. Campaign buttons of dead politicians, press credentials to events I barely recall, old newspapers that I’ve hauled through a half-dozen moves … nothing my kids want in their attics.
Yesterday’s project was cleaning a file cabinet. I’d stored tax returns from the last century. Out. Credit card bills, also from the last century. Out. Fan letters about my first novel (yep, last century). Keep. The paper shredder overheated.
At the bottom of the drawer, where worthwhile stories were buried, I spied a yellowing sheaf, obviously an old manuscript. It wasn’t thick, so I knew it was unfinished. I leafed through it and remembered it. A mystery. I knew these characters, but I’m not sure who the killer was. I loved its message. I even remembered why I had put it in the drawer.
Most writers have “trunk books,” manuscripts either unfinished or finished, that never worked, became less urgent, or were simply rejected so many times the writer just gave up.
In this case, the mystery was stashed when I got an offer on a true-crime project about survivors of mass killers. My marketable writing had taken a left turn into nonfiction, and nobody wanted to see my fiction—even crime fiction.
So, another trunk novel was born. In fact, there were already a couple in there. An epic literary novel about love, faith, and terrorism. The darkly humorous story about an ex-con mother who comes back to take charge of her scattered family. A historical mystery featuring a slightly fictionalized Dashiell Hammett as the sleuth.
The bottom of my cabinet had become a literary graveyard.
Right now, I’m working on Book No. 18, another true crime. But I emailed my ever-practical literary agent about this intriguing unfinished mystery. “You have people who want to see your true crime,” she said. “Not your fiction.”
Being told I can’t do something is the surest way to inspire me to do it. I’m getting old enough to not care what anybody else thinks. And if I’m gonna spend a year or two of a constantly shortening life telling a story, then it should be a story I want to tell.
So, I moved the unfinished mystery to the top of my cluttered desk, where it could breathe. Maybe … next.
I thought about Herman.
And that’s the moral of this story—which is how all worthwhile stories end: Keep what’s worth keeping, shed the rest.
Cover photo: Julia Joppien