Stubborn To a Fault – How to know it’s time to let go

I have this idea that every new thing I write is going to be better than the last. It makes sense. Practice makes perfect and if you do something long enough you’re going to get better at it. I also have the idea that anything can be made interesting if one is a good enough writer. If you are like me in these beliefs it’s time for both of us to do ourselves a favor.

Realize that not every idea is worth the effort of trying to save it.

Consider the plight of our friend and mentor Natalie Goldberg. On page 83 of Wild Mind Goldberg shares a story about seeing an accident involving a cow and a semi lying in the road, both on their sides, facing each other as though they had run head on and knocked each other over. The image was a moment of inspiration for her. After a few weeks of working over the image she hadn’t gotten anywhere. The inspiration was gone and she couldn’t make it work. She wisely gave it up.

Sometimes we find ourselves really trying to communicate something, stopping all progress in the effort of getting it right, and still it never manifests the way we want it. The importance of understanding this concept applies especially to revision. We all know that when we write something for the first time we are free to let it fly onto the page. We understand that we are not to worry (as much) about grammar, diction and syntax, not the way we will worry about it later in revision. So when we are cruising along and our hand writes out something like, “The night that Jason found his grandmother’s diary would have been a watershed moment in his life if he had had the courage to take the key from his mother’s hand and unlock the book to reveal the secrets inside about how he had the inherited the curse of the wolf” we know we have to fix that bit later (and how).

So later comes, and it’s time to revise that hideously long sentence for the sake of informing the reader that Jason had a chance to learn the secret of his past early on if he had only had the courage. We begin by moving words around like so:

“The night Jason found his grandmother’s diary was important . . .” No.

“If only Jason had taken the key to his grandmother’s diary he would have learned the dark secret . . .” Not what we want.

Meanwhile, all of the narrative leading up to this stupid sentence, and a good chunk of what follows, is spot on! In fact, it might be so good that we don’t need the long complex sentence in the middle at all. There is a very simple trick to figuring out that it’s time to cut an idea and move on – read the passage as if the sentence was gone already and see if the story lives on.

This tip applies to any part of the writing process and is key to revision. Simply put, if something isn’t working it isn’t worth the time to make it fit. I couldn’t tell you how much time I have wasted playing with snippets of a story that were more “snip” and less “pet.” Very much like pruning a plant, however, once we identify the dead branches of our writing and cut them out, the story and we ourselves feel suddenly healthier and more vibrant for it.

There is a companion notion to this idea of knowing when it’s time to let something go and it all has to do with that key writer organ covered recently in another discussion: the gut. You will recall that the gut is where our truth and intuition reside. We must recognize as well that the gut also informs us when the writing is bad, and by learning to listen to our gut we can find many more dead branches during our pruning process. The way it works is that during the re-reading of our work-in-progress we will come across passages that don’t “feel” right. The reasons are many, and the goal of revision is to find these passages and make them better. But sometimes they never feel better and this is when it comes time to realize they never will. We cut the passage (or sentence, or clause, etc.) and instead our gut, and the story, feels better.

All hail the gut! The writer’s organ!

Stubbornness can be a writer’s great ally. By being strong we ignore the negativity of others who tell us we cannot succeed, or should not tell our story, or must go here, be that, give up this, etc. When it comes to making good stories, however, we must be prepared to exchange stubbornness for success. We must know when it’s time to let go.

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8 comments on “Stubborn To a Fault – How to know it’s time to let go

  1. jcollyer says:

    You are absolutely right. It can be difficult, it can be painful but less is more and show don’t tell. A tutor wants told me that the process of drafting is like building a house: to begin with you have all teh substance and the materials but you need scaffolding to hold it all in place. The scaffolding is the superfluous and over-explaining language, clauses and even scenes. The editing process is the taking down of the scaffolding and the structure should then stand on its own and be stronger for it. You’re right, we need to be stubborn. And ruthless. It may feel like your peeling a way bits of your skin but if the sentence/idea/passage/character/scene isn’t working…it has to go.

    • emperort says:

      I like that metaphor, J. So as we’re removing the scaffolding we need to be sure the structure will stand up. Sometimes with physics, I imagine, it takes the same intuition as with writing. If something doesn’t feel right it has to be addressed until it is correct.

      I hope your structures are holding true.

  2. When I read the headline of this post, I thought you were going to talk on a larger scale — not individual sentences or scenes, but entire stories/novels. Of course, just about everything you said works on that higher level, too.

    I’ve abandoned novels halfway through and given up after a complete first draft. Why? Because my gut said the amount of work needed to make them presentable wouldn’t be worth the investment. No matter how hard I worked, the probable outcome still wouldn’t have been great.

    When we first start out, we spend far too much time tweaking awkward syntax, symbolism and transitions. We stubbornly cling to ideas (great and small) because we cherish just about everything that comes out of our head. At first, it’s probably because WE know what WE meant, and can’t conceive that others wouldn’t “get it.” It takes a long time to gain any measure of objectivity about one’s own writing. And when we hold ourselves to a higher standard — our readers’ standards — it becomes obvious when a good idea in theory is destined to be a horrible sentence/paragraph/scene/chapter/novel in practice.

    While editing this morning, I found myself whittling paragraphs down to single sentences, eliminating asides that hampered the pace and trimming words to make every sentence as tight as can be. It felt more like “unwriting” than anything.

    Beginners put everything on the page; disciplined writers put only exactly what must be there.

    • emperort says:

      Really well stated, David. I think beginners are so intent on putting enough words down that it’s hard for them to go through and take some out. It seems almost like sacrilege to remove matter that was so difficult to mine in the first place. But eventually, with practice, we all come to see that only certain things should remain and the rest can go like so many shavings on the workshop floor. What feels like destruction is more like deconstruction – removing the scaffolding as J Collyer said.

  3. Deconstruction and reconstruction serve well whether building a great article or a great life. Thanks for bringing this to light in your own unique way.

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