This scenario will be familiar to many writers: You start working on a story, but it doesn’t unfold the way you had in mind. Some parts of it resonate very well, perfectly expressing the feelings and ideas you wanted to get across. The other parts aren’t right, but you can’t spot the reasons why. Although you know that the story needs more work, the details of what’s wrong with it are unclear.

So you put the half-finished draft away in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet, if it’s written out by hand. If it’s on the computer, you drop it into the folder where old incomplete stories go to die. Then you move on to another project, kind of thinking that you’ll come back and finish it after a while, but knowing that there is a high chance you’ll never look at it again.

Time passes, and you don’t think about the story at all. One day you’re cleaning out the file cabinet or deleting old files from your computer, and you discover the story again. Now all of the flaws that eluded you before are embarrassingly obvious. Scenes you once thought hilarious look silly and juvenile. Those brilliant insights on the world are trite. There’s a factual error here and a clumsy ungrammatical sentence there. You used a word or phrase that all your friends were using ten years ago, but now it is widely seen as ignorant and offensive. You wonder what you were thinking when you wrote it.

Even with all its flaws, though, the story has some good points. There are descriptive paragraphs that create vivid mental images, fantastic settings that make you wish you could go take a walk there, and — even after all this time — a lively cast of characters who pop right out of the story and have a few things to say to you about their world. So you decide it’s worth revising. You chop out the stuff that doesn’t work, and you write new material to bring together the parts you like. When you’re finished, the story may not look like you first imagined it would, but you’re pleased with the results.

I believe that our society goes through a similar process of revising its cultural stories. We have lots of faulty assumptions, stereotypes, and outdated models of how the world works; and they’re all stuffed into the collective bottom drawer, right next to the bogeymen and scapegoats that go along with them. On the rare occasions when the drawer gets opened far enough to let a bit of sunlight and fresh air into its dim musty depths, we may notice that something in there doesn’t look quite right. But often it seems like too much trouble to find out what’s in need of fixing, so we just push the drawer shut and keep on doing the same old stuff we’ve always done.

We can go on like that for a very long time before an unexpected event prods us out of our complacency. A new scientific or technological discovery shows just how far wrong the experts had been on a particular subject, or a disadvantaged minority group starts advocating for equal opportunity loudly enough so that they can’t be ignored anymore. Then we’re faced with the difficult task of rewriting cultural narratives long taken for granted. But after we’ve owned up to our mistakes and invested the resources needed to fix them, not only do we find that it was worth the time and effort — we wonder why we never got around to it before.

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