Stepping Away, Letting Go
This fall I had several projects that had been lying dormant for several months. I kept thinking, ‘Shouldn’t it be bothering me that I’m not writing? Shouldn’t at least one of my projects be calling me back by now?’ I was starting to miss that feeling of wanting to write, but wasn’t at all inclined to actually write.
But maybe, I thought, if just poked a bit at one of my dormant projects…?
One bit of poking resulted in a new draft of a picture book story. The result did nothing to restore my lost passion for writing. It was bad beyond Anne Lamott’s famous “shitty first draft” bad, and it wasn’t even a first draft.
Soon I found myself poking at notes I’d made in reaction to feedback a writer-friend had given me back in April on a novel manuscript I’ve referred to here before (more than once). I have no idea why I even bothered to open the file. During my months away I’d come to the conclusion that it was time for me to call it quits on this one, to just let it go. I’d had fun writing it, some people had even liked parts of it, but after many, many drafts it just… wasn’t… working.
But as I poked, I saw things that set me wondering.
- Why does Aggie need to have two daughters?
- What is Maisie’s point of view adding to the development of the main story line?
- Doesn’t this plot thread entirely hinge on Avery having a secret kept from her?
Eliminating the secret kept from Avery was no big deal. Killing off one of Aggie’s daughters was way easier than murder should ever be, especially since, like Maisie, she was a point-of-view character. Demoting Maisie to minor-character status should have been harder; I have loved her ever since she was first born in my imagination, over twenty years ago. But stepping away had, it seems, made letting go of the pages of her story, if not totally easy, at least possible.
How had I not seen, months or even years ago, that the secret had nothing to do with how Avery and her mother would have to face the challenges ahead of them? Why had I resisted acting on my knowing deep down that Maisie’s life was connected with the other characters by only a very thin thread? How and why had I spent months (years!) writing from the point of view of someone who didn’t even need to exist — and I didn’t even much like?
Because, it seems, it’s what we writers do. We get attached, in spite of ourselves, to what we’ve written. We can’t bear to think that months of work on something have been for nothing. We can’t not believe sometimes that just one more round of revision is all it will take to make our work the brilliant thing we’re envisioning. And because sometimes, in order to let go, we have to step away — and then, at some point, step back.
Is one of your projects “stuck” because you’ve chosen a wrong point-of-view character? Or because a character without a role in the narrative is taking up space? Or because you’ve allowed yourself to become attached to an irrelevant detail?
What kinds of things have you held onto that led one of your projects to get stuck — to keep getting different perhaps but not better? (Please tell me so I can watch for that pitfall in my work too.)
What have you done to help you get a project unstuck?
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to let go of?
Kathy Stinson is the author of the classic Red Is Best and the award-winning The Man with the Violin. Her wide range of titles includes picture books, non-fiction, young adult fiction, historical fiction, horror, biography, series books, and short stories. She has met with her readers in every province and territory of Canada, in the United States, Britain, Liberia, and Korea. She lives in a small town in Ontario.
Kathy, this post is wonderful. Thank you for writing about your experience. I let go of a major character a few weeks ago and I’ve been going through something similar. It’s so easy to get attached to what we’ve written. Wishing you all the best for your work on the novel.
Thank you, Sarah. I’m glad you enjoyed reading this. Congrats on your ‘letting go.’ I hope your work is going well as a result!
Someone smarter than me once said that not writing is still part of the writing process. The times where we need to let our creative well fill up again takes sometimes more time than writing the manuscript. On the subject of ‘letting go’ – I think that’s an excellent approach. Except, you really have to let go. Questioning yourself why you are stuck is still hanging on. You truly don’t have to write another story in your life. If you can believe it, it’s amazingly freeing. If you’re trying to trick yourself into believing it, it’s not going to work.Tricky, eh? What got me stuck in my latest novel was that I couldn’t figure out the the reason behind the never-ending arguments between my teenage main character and her narcissistic mother. I had – without realizing at first – interwoven my own experiences with difficult relationships with those of my characters and since I saw no solution for myself I couldn’t see one for my character. What got me unstuck was to read and watch movies with difficult mother-daughter relationships. At one time something made click, when I wasn’t even thinking about my own writing (nor was there any similarities between my characters and the ones in the book I was reading.) It helped me to remove myself out of the motivations of my main character and let her be herself. I think photography has become something for you where you can lose yourself in – and find the freedom to be open if a dormant project demands new attention. Just don’t worry what anyone else might think. If you feel like writing – or not – has nothing to do with them.
Too bad we couldn’t talk this spring. Maybe another time…. Miriam Miriam Körner
Writer | Photographer | Visual Artist | Wilderness Guide
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Miriam. Getting at a character’s motivation is key to making a story hang together in a believable and compelling way. I like how you succeeded in doing that with yours.
We did talk this spring. You were with me at a crucial moment. But our chats about writing did end up having to be postponed. Another time for sure.