Does Your Unfinished Art Serve a Purpose? – Revisited

This post originally ran Aug. 24, 2019

I’ve wanted to write a novel about my Mexican grandmother since I was fifteen. I’ve known all along what the first line would be: “When I was nine years old, Poncho Villa rode into town and killed a merchant in the street.” Whenever I think of that line, I get the shivers, remembering the day my notoriously quiet grandmother let that memory slip out.

But it’s never seemed like the right time to tackle that book. I never wanted to try when I was younger because her story was so important to me that I wanted to wait until I felt I was a stronger writer. And then as I grew in my writing ability, I got deep into my World War II stories and committed to finishing those. And now, my writing is taking a new direction. In fact, I’m not sure when or if I’ll write another work of fiction. So, where does that leave Grandma’s book?

Is it possible I’ll never pen that novel that I’ve wanted to write for 37 years? Is it possible her inspiring story, her American dream saga, will never see the light of day? And if so, does that mean I’ve failed her or failed myself? I don’t think so.

See, some of our creative work is meant to get out there in the world, and some is meant just for us, for our internal motivation and inspiration. Just because it never lands on the page or the canvas or the stage doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Every time I think about my grandma’s story and play out a scene in my mind or jot down a line of dialogue, I feel closer to her and to the tale that made me want to be a writer in the first place.

I have an author friend who said whenever she starts a new book, she pictures the finished product (cover and all) floating before her. The knowledge that the final book exists in this future form makes it seem real to her. That’s what keeps her going. I think my grandma’s story is that image for me. It represents possibility in all its forms.

I hope I do write Grandma’s novel someday. What a thrill it would be to finally hold it in my hands. But even if I don’t, her presence and her family’s history has worked its way into much of my writing, everything from essays, to short stories, to my children’s book, V for Victory. In many ways, she is still the reason I write.

So, if you’re feeling the time isn’t right for a project you know you want to do, but you worry the time will never be right, release that pressure. You’ll either do it or you won’t, but something about that idea has already changed you for the better.

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