The Letting Go

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.

Let it goI 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.

21 thoughts on “The Letting Go

  1. Carleen M. Tjader

    Thank you. Among my manuscripts, I have one that I’m trying to think of a marketable format for, or best let go. Maybe I’ll hang on a little while longer!
    Your words, and those who reply to you, are so helpful to me.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Your term “a marketable format” is significant. Sometimes a piece can work, can be perfectly what you need it to be, and not be marketable. That’s not failure. It’s a creation for yourself. On the other hand, if you can find that marketable format and find a home for something you needed to write, that’s always a win.

  2. Debby Dahl Edwardson

    Thank you for this Marion.

    Sometimes we get so dogged in our approach – shaking the thing in our teeth again and again with increasing frustration until we loose all sense if it. This reminds me that sometimes the best approach is a sideways approach, which is much easier in composition than in wrestling with form. Letting go is a good way of encouraging the frame of mind that allows possibility rather than constriction. I needed this.

    Deep breath.

  3. Joanne Toft

    I love how you end this post –
    “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.”

    My yoga teachers uses the word allow – allow the stretch, or allow the muscles to let go, allow this practice to help heal you –

    It seems to fit here as well – if we just allow the material to guide us amazing things can happen and issues can be solved. I like the word allow.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Karen Henry Clark

    Marion, I have to admit I miss teaching teenagers. Even the ones who weren’t academically strong were still lively and curious and had good hearts. A deep silence always settled over the classroom when this passage was read out loud. We’d talk about it and then they’d write something from their own lives to show how it applied personally. What they wrote was always beautiful. I remember crying often. I still hear from several of them. Great people who changed me forever.

  5. Norma Gaffron

    For Karen: I’m savoring that line,”…And we must take the current when it serves…”
    For Marion: And sometimes the current gets diverted – for the better or worse, remains to be experienced. Sorting “stuff” in the basement I came across an old ms. that never got published, and with it a dozen encouraging letters from editors with suggestions, some in detail, as to how to improve my story. Will I ever come back to it??? Years go by…priorities change.
    Thanks for giving me so much to think about on this windy cold Minnesota day.
    Norma Gaffron

  6. Karen Henry Clark

    I know this moment so well. Remember jumping rope? You had to time those turns and know the split second to hop forward or get tangled and fall. When I was an English teacher, I discovered that one of the few points kids always understood about Shakespeare was the timing speech from JULIUS CAESAR:

    There is a tide in the affairs of men.
    Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
    Omitted, all the voyage of their life
    Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
    On such a full sea are we now afloat,
    And we must take the current when it serves,
    Or lose our ventures.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Karen, I can’t get Reply to function, so I have to leave my response as a separate comment. I hope you see it. It’s fascinating to me that your students understood that speech from Julius Caesar when they all stood on the brink of such choices with little opportunity to try them out yet. It is such a fundamental truth, though, isn’t it?


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