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What “Let It Go” Really Means

photo by Doran via Flickr
photo by Doran via Flickr [1]

There’s a meme I always see out there on Facebook (and that’s the whole world, right?) that makes me crazy. It’s the often lotus-adorned command to “let it go.” Something’s happened to you, something’s bothering you, and you’re told to just let it go. As if the fact that it’s bothering you is somehow your fault, and you’re purposefully holding onto it, as if it’s a choice. And, even more insidious, as if by “letting it go” –poof! It’s gone, and so is the pain, desire, and regret.

This is something I can’t let go because it’s so deeply wrong. Not only isn’t “letting go” possible in the way it’s so often taken to mean, but it shames us in the process. Now we have two problems: that thing we “can’t let go of” and the fact that we’re somehow morally weak because we’re “letting it” bother us. Yikes!

The reason this is on my mind today is that Jennie Nash [2] and I have just finished teaching the beta version of our online workshop based on my upcoming book, Story Genius. It was thrilling to see so many writers – both fledgling and seasoned — crack open their stories and write with such power. A few writers, however, struggled much harder than others, and when we stepped back to try to figure out why, we noticed that the biggest thing that held them back had nothing to do with their ability to write. What held them back most was what they’d already written.

We’ve all heard the adage that we should kill our darlings and we all think, “Yes, right, of course!” But what we’re envisioning is a finely wrought sentence here or there, a couple of pages that don’t work, maybe a scene. It’s hard to kill these little darlings, because they’re not only part of what we’ve written, they’re part of us. We made them, we love them. Tough as it is, however, writers do often muster the courage to hit the delete button and move on. In these cases, we know what’s good for our story. We know what must be done, and so we let it go.

But no writer ever in the history of the world thought that the darling this adage refers to might be the first half of the book or the whole entire thing.

But often that is the case. And should someone suggest that you simply “let it go” (lotus-image adorned or not) your first impulse is probably to punch them in the nose (mine would be). Your second is to curl up in the fetal position and sob. (Ditto.) I’ve been there. It hurts. You worked insanely hard, you put everything into what you wrote.

But your plot now turns out to be nothing more than a bunch of surface things that happen, because there’s no internal story to give it meaning. Or you’ve discovered that although you were writing forward to see where the muse took you, it turns out that said muse took you into the middle of a vast ocean and beat a hasty retreat. As Seneca so aptly pointed out a couple of millennia ago, “If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favorable to him.” Women either. (Let’s not get into how sexist the world was and still is. Another thing that makes me crazy. But that’s for another day. For now let’s, um, let it go.)

Going From Bad To Worse

Because for writers the real trouble starts when they double down, trying to fix the unfixable. They’re so inadvertently seduced by the siren song of what they’ve already written that they end up making an unsuccessful valiant try, worse.

That is totally normal, and it’s not something we set out to do on purpose; it has to do with how we’re wired. When it comes to rewriting, a writer’s tacit allegiance is to what they’ve already written, rather than to the story they’re telling. Especially when they’re not quite sure what that story actually is to begin with. We all do it.

Instead of digging into the story we want to tell, we try to find ways to make what we’ve already written logical. We try to harness an internal cause-and-effect trajectory to things that have no real causal relationship. Our goal is to create “connective tissue” between the scenes, and so stitch them together into a coherent whole. Hello Frankenstein! Sadly what tends to happen is that what didn’t make much sense to begin with, now makes even less sense.

Because here’s the thing: you can’t insert story logic from the outside in. The truth is that the minute a writer digs into the kind of internal story logic that could power their premise all the way to the end, it almost always renders moot everything they’ve already written.

This, ironically, makes it even harder to let it go, because now they’ve spent even more time on their manuscript. And giving up on it at the end of that very, very long day can mean only one thing: you suck as a writer.

Try letting that go. That sense of failure follows you around like a puppy.

No good comes of that.

The Solution

So how do writers let go of drafts that aren’t working? First, by accepting that – ouch – this situation sucks. You put all that work in, and gave up so much to it. Writing takes time, dedication, and the steel will to turn a blind eye to the other things in your life that clamor for your attention 24/7 (yes, smartphone, I’m talking about you!). You gave it your all, and it didn’t work. Ugh.

But, but, but, that doesn’t mean all is lost. Just because it sucks doesn’t mean you suck. Chances are you went down many roads you’ll never take again. You learned what not to do, which is enormously useful. And because you made this difficult decision – to let the draft go without letting your commitment to the story go — now you’re open to moving forward on a road that might get you to the story you want to tell. That’s an even bigger success.

That is what “let it go” really means. It doesn’t mean “put it out of your mind.” You can’t, because it will always be there in one form or another. It doesn’t mean put a wall around it to protect yourself. It doesn’t mean pretend it never happened. You can’t choose to forget it. You can’t choose not to feel the pain. But you can choose to reframe it.

That’s what many of the writers I’ve known and worked with have — at one time or another — chosen to do.  I felt awful for them, watching that draft finally hit the dust. But what always surprised me is that for most of them, rather than being debilitating, abandoning a draft that isn’t working turned out to be liberating. Suddenly it wasn’t a failure any more, it was the path they had to travel down to get to the clearing from which they could now begin to envision their story. What’s more it gave them the courage to look back and have empathy for themselves, for what they were trying to do, and for what they’d learned in the process.

That’s when the paralysis that sets in when you’re not sure what to do lifts, and so does the desire to give the hell up and forget the whole damn thing. I am not saying that “letting it go” is easy. It most definitely is not. Change is always hard, because in order to change we have to leave something of ourselves behind. Will ditching what you’ve already written leave a scar? Probably.

But remember, behind every scar, there’s always an interesting story.

What about you, have you ever stood on the crossroad between what you’ve already written and the story you really want to tell? What did you do? (After you stopped sobbing, that is.)

About Lisa Cron [3]

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence [4] and Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste 3 Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). [5] Her video tutorial, Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, can be found at Lynda.com [6]. Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, [7] opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, schools and universities, Lisa's passion has always been story. She currently works as a story coach helping writers, nonprofits, educators and journalists wrangle the story they're telling onto the page; contact her here. [8]

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