An editor colleague just asked what to do about a client who’s written a very good novel but wants to keep revising and revising and won’t start querying agents or publishers.
There’s not much you can do, I said.
Aside: “Letting Go,” take 1, was prompted by a similar query. It took off in a somewhat different direction. I suspect that writers and editors never stop dealing with this stuff.
The word “perfectionism” came up.
As a recovering perfectionist — often a recovering-by-the-skin-of-my-teeth perfectionist who wonders if she’s recovering at all — I know a few things about this. Perfectionism can mean that everything you do has to be perfect before you’ll let it out of your sight, but it can and often does mean more than that. Perfectionism is a way of maintaining control. If I do everything right, I won’t get fired, my lover won’t leave, my kids will turn out perfect, and my novel will get made into a top-grossing movie and the world will swoon at my feet.
It often doesn’t work out that way. Deep down we perfectionists suspect this. Deep down we know that once something leaves our hands, the outcome is out of our control. So we don’t let it go.
Which is what I suspect is going on with the novelist who can’t stop revising, mainly because I’ve known many writers over the years who can’t let go of their work. They tell themselves the work isn’t done — they need to do more research, or do one more draft — and nothing anyone tells them can persuade them otherwise. The problem isn’t that the work isn’t done, it’s that the word “done” isn’t in the writer’s vocabulary because “done” means s/he has to let go.
For writers, here is where it gets tricky. Letting go means you’re putting the outcome in the hands of person(s) unknown. Persons who don’t know you and don’t have any particular reason to wish you well — unless, of course, you’ve produced the sort of work that might make lots of money. The overwhelming majority of us have not done this. Competent agents agree to represent only a small fraction of the manuscripts they see. Many of the ones they reject are very good or better.
In other words, if “failure” to you means rejection by an agent, or by a dozen or a hundred agents, your fear of failure is completely justified.
So is your fear of success. Fear of success is the flip side of fear of failure. They both have deep roots in the fear of letting go. Say you do get an agent, the agent sells your book, and there’s actually a book on the market that has your name on the cover. To you it’s a huge deal, as it should be, but most of the world — including your friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances — is going to say, at best, “That’s nice,” and move on.
Am I telling you to give up? Of course not. Read on.
Here’s a little parable: A kid finds a new butterfly struggling to get out of its chrysalis. The kid pulls the chrysalis apart and helps the butterfly get out. But the butterfly’s wings aren’t fully developed. It cannot fly. Moral of story: It’s the struggle to get out of the chrysalis that strengthens the butterfly’s wings so it can fly.
I like this little parable even though some people turn it into a rationale for never helping anybody out. I like it because it applies so well to writing and other creative endeavors. In the struggle to create, we not only become good writers, we also figure out what we want to do with our writing. We create a path forward for ourselves and develop the courage to follow it.
For many of us, this involves seeking out and sharing experiences with other writers. We become better writers, yes, but we also develop two crucial skills: the ability to dissociate ourselves from our creations, and the ability to sort through other people’s comments, edits, and critiques and decide what works for us. In the process, we learn about the many options for getting our work out into the world.
To complete a book-length work without doing this — well, it’s like finding that the road you’ve been on for years ends in a precipitous drop. Or maybe like opening the door from your dark room and being blinded by the light outside.
The very first line of this blog, back in “The Basics,” was “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.”
I believe it.
In that same post, I quoted two of the truest things I’ve ever heard about writing. I believe them too. Here they are again.
”I think writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame.”
— Alice Walker
The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
— Marge Piercy
10 thoughts on “Letting Go, Take 2”
I’m writing a memoir now, so I couldn’t agree more about the healing process of writing. (Love that quote by Ms. Walker!)
Re: the perfectionism, I’m sure I’ll struggle with it after I finish my first draft (which should be in the next couple of weeks . . . yay! I finally committed to writing it!). I have a history of perfectionism issues when it comes to creative work.
Actually, I think blogging helps with getting over perfectionism. At some point, if you hope to post anything that week, you need to hit the PUBLISH button! At some point, you realize that if you don’t let it go, the important idea you wanted to convey will miss its chance to maybe comfort, inspire, or otherwise help someone that day, which would be a real shame.
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Blogging definitely helps. Writing for publication helps. My years working for a weekly newspaper helped a lot. With deadline and length constraints you stop expecting anything to be perfect and realize that clear, accurate, useful, and timely are good goals. Some writers invest years in long-haul projects like novels and memoirs without getting any of that practice. Practice helps!
I like to say that many perfectionists are drawn to editing — and editing is a cure for perfectionism. It sure helps me, anyway.
Thanks for commenting, and good luck with the memoir!
Reblogged this on Her Headache and commented:
Thanks for reblogging! I have to reblog this stuff to my own head several times a week.
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I thought this was important to share. I wrote a short story, which will be out in an anthology in a few weeks. I am facing some of this and love the quotes. I write to heal. Afraid of putting it out to the world, but I believe it is important.
Good for you — and congratulations!
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Releasing our creations to the unknown is certainly scary, though I’ve noticed it does get easier after doing it a few times. I might call myself a perfectionist, but I learned early on that there is no such thing as perfection in writing, because readers are all different. Letting go is survivable
I am reading this on a day I devoted to working on a major revision to my novel. It sat for over a year. I was too close to the story line. Time away helped.
Thank you for this post! It’s wonderful!
Time might be the best editor of all — or at least the best editor’s assistant. Thanks for writing, and keep going!
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