I’ve said it before and I still believe it, so I might as well say it again.
Letting go can be a writer’s most creative act.
And the most difficult, too.
I’ve offered this piece of advice to my students many times, but each time I do I’ve been reminding myself as well, hoping when the time comes that knowing it will help.
I’ve just finished a project, a picture book, would you believe, that has occupied me wholly for months. For hours nearly every day, I have researched and written and written and rewritten. And then researched some more and started over from the beginning. Many times.
The text has finally coalesced, so I find myself stepping off into that place I arrive at every time I encounter the vacuum of no-work-waiting. Each morning I rise and say . . . “So?” After confronting that “So?” for a week or two, I began rummaging in an abandoned young-adult novel that has been waiting in the wings. I wrote about the beginnings of that encounter two weeks ago.
The novel was called Blue-Eyed Wolf. Whatever else changed about it from one iteration to the next—and much did—it was always called Blue-Eyed Wolf. It opens with a stolen glimpse of a litter of wolf pups.
But almost without my consent, as I tiptoe back inside my story, my setting insists upon changing.
It is changing because I used that northern Minnesota wilderness setting where an encounter with a litter of wolf pups is possible for another novel. That one, called Sunshine, will be out in the spring of 2021.
Of course, many, many stories can occur in northern Minnesota. I even had the good sense to avoid an encounter with wolves in Sunshine in order to leave that territory untouched in case I decided to return to this novel. But when I began to regather Blue-Eyed Wolf I discovered, to my dismay, that, even without using the wolves, I seem to have used up much of the emotional juice that land of woods and lakes holds for me. In story form anyway.
So this novel has to find another setting, one that still calls to me.
Where else to turn except to the cement-milling community in north central Illinois where I grew up? The place where I lived out my childhood seems to be endlessly juicy.
This change feels both necessary and good. I know it is good because it is energizing. I can feel the noisy, dusty cement mill; the small Midwestern town; the muddy river that runs through the woods, can feel all of it pulling new ideas into my story the way a magnet draws iron filings.
But still . . . everyone knows there are no wolves with eyes of any color at all in Illinois.
And oh, how I miss those wolves!
They were, as my agent pointed out gently when I complained to him of their loss, “always mostly metaphoric, yes?” And he is right. Of course. Surely I can find another metaphor to carry my story.
To carry my heart, I started to say, because that is what those wolves were doing.
But how do I move forward after discarding my story’s heart?
This is where I take a deep breath and pause to consider that lecture about “letting go.” I remember even the gesture I used to make, the way I held my hand out in front of me, palm up, fingers folded, then opened it slowly. As though I were releasing a small bird into flight.
And that is pretty much the way it feels. A bird taking flight, leaving me standing here with an empty hand.
Which is why I return to that lecture, repeat it again, to myself this time.
“Letting go can be a writer’s most creative act.”
Now for the hard part . . . waiting for another bird to find my open hand!