Our most creative act can be the letting go.
I’m not talking about giving up, though sometimes giving up may be called for. Looking back over a long career, however, I can see that the times I gave up on a major project were usually a mistake. But right now I’m talking about the moment when I release something I’m working on so that it can come back to me fresh.
I did that recently with the memoir in verse I’ve been working on for a couple of years. I have lots of material, pages and pages of it, but I’ve been struggling with finding a form for it, a way to weave the moments into a comprehensible whole.
I tried coming up with themes and dumping the verses into different themes, but that left great gaps. I tried arranging them chronologically, but who cares about the chronology of my life? Not enough people to sell a book. I tried weaving the verses together by creating prose introductions and transitions, but the movement in and out of verse felt arbitrary. So I sat looking at what was in front of me, despairing.
And then I allowed myself to say to myself what a friend and enormously helpful critic of my work had said to me a while back, “Maybe this doesn’t need to be in verse!”
A confession here. Even though I’d heard that idea a while back, saying it to myself was more than startling. It was appalling. My entire decision to write the memoir had been based on the selectivity I could find in verse. And the power.
Nonetheless . . . I did what I’m talking about here. I let go. I said, “Okay. Let’s see what happens,” and I began elongating my ragged lines, stretching them into prose. The process required rewriting, of course, though not as much as I’d expected. The way the words had originally arranged themselves on the page altered my style, but it wasn’t a bad alteration. And if everything was in prose I could easily write explanations and transitions.
But then I looked back at the verse and sighed. Deeply. I could see I was losing something important with the change of the look on the page. Too much? I couldn’t tell.
So I turned to a fellow writer, someone who has been tracking this work with me all along. I sent her the opening of the manuscript in this new form. I knew that her familiarity with the material would keep her from being completely objective, but I also knew she would be a lot more objective than I.
Her response? An immediate and emphatic, “No.” She missed the verse. She missed the pieces having titles. She didn’t want to flow from one telling to the next.
If I had been convinced of what I was doing, I would have listened respectfully but kept moving forward in this new form. But the reasons she gave were the same ones that troubled me, so I listened to the echo of my own concerns and abandoned the new approach.
I let go of the creative act of letting go.
Once more I sat with the mishmash of all I’d created in front of me, took a deep breath, and started again.
This wasn’t as much a starting again as I’d experienced recently when I made a decision with my young-adult novel to go from a single perceiving character to three. Then I set aside nearly 200 pages and went back to page 1. This time all I had written remained. But I was letting go of what I had thought with a rush of enthusiasm was the answer to my problem.
And I still didn’t know how to shape the manuscript.
So I returned to the verse I had always been committed to and began, slowly, carefully, to sample different ways of arranging it. And slowly, carefully I began to move forward again.
Problem solved? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s too early to tell.
But I’d been stopped in my tracks before I had the courage to try a totally different form. And that letting go gave me a new perspective about the work in front of me.
At the very least it gave me an energizing jolt.
Sometimes we need simply to hang on, to refuse to give up. Sometimes we need to let go.
And sometimes we need to do both.