On Letting Go

Photo by Ankush Minda on Unsplash

I suppose I write about revising as often as I do because I spend so much of my time doing it.

I write about revising also because I’m convinced that the difference between the amateur writer and the professional one is rarely a difference in native talent.  I have over my years of teaching encountered any number of highly talented writers, some with gifts I can’t touch, and some of those highly talented folks are still unpublished.

Of course, being published may not have been their goal, and if it’s not and they write for the pure joy of the process without ever longing for an audience, they have my full support.

But most people who write want readers, and they want to do more than hand their work around, they want to hold a finished book.  If you are one of those, then the skill you need to cultivate is revision.

And the first step in learning to revise is learning to let go.

I don’t mean writing and writing and writing and then throwing it all out.  That’s too easy.  (Or too hard, depending on how you look at it.)

I mean taking something you love from the tips of your toes and being willing to ask yourself, how might I see this differently? And then letting go of the way it landed on the page the first time. Or even the second or third or fourth time.

The secret, I’ve found, is to throw away any trace of “I got it wrong and dog-gone-it, now I have to fix it!” and begin instead with “I love this! Now how can I make it better?”

But to make it better, you have to start with giving up your commitment to the way it is. And that can be scary.

I’m not talking about killing your darlings, that too-often repeated advice. Sometimes your darlings stand up and call too much attention to themselves and therefore need to be buried, and sometimes they are darling because they are beautifully written and a perfect fit in your piece.

I’m talking about seeking feedback from folks you trust—or folks who have the capacity to publish your work if you get it right—and letting that feedback give you a new vision.  (That’s what re-vision is, after all. A new vision.)

Sometimes for me that new vision requires hearing a suggestion more than once.  I’m revising a novel now about a boy who has an imaginary dog. Before we sent it to the editor, my agent said to me, “I wonder if we find out too soon that the dog is imaginary.”  All I could think of was how much I loved the moment of revelation exactly as it stood at the end of the first chapter AND the amount of work such a change would make.

I said, “I don’t agree. Let’s send it.”

He did as I asked, and do you want to guess what the editor said? Among other things, “I wonder if we find out too soon that the dog is imaginary.”

By the second time I heard the comment, I suddenly had a new vision of my story’s possibilities. So I said, “You’re right.  Of course!” And I let go of my love of that end-of-the-first-chapter revelation and went to work.

(I also ate a little humble pie in appreciation of my agent.)

But that’s only one of many examples of letting go.

To make this struggling story work, I’ve had to let go of my main character’s core motivation, turn it inside out. I’ve thrown out a bedrock scene and found something stronger to put in its place. And once I really let go, I was able to see that the most important things that happen in my story can work better if they happen in a different order.

Wow! That’s exciting!

And it’s enormously satisfying that I’ll end up with a story that works for other readers.

If I hadn’t been willing to let go, though, I would have ended up with a failed novel.

8 thoughts on “On Letting Go

  1. nancyboflood

    Yes and yes, Marion, writing is such a journey of re-seeing, at looking at a story and each character inside out and upside down. Such a process of discovery. I’m reminded of how many scientific discoveries happened because the researcher let go of expectations and “saw” what was not anticipated.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      That’s a wonderful analogy, Nancy, and one I hadn’t thought of. I wonder if this isn’t the way most important discoveries are made. First, let go of trying to control the results, then discover.


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