December 3rd, 2018

Letting Go: In Writing and in Life

by Donna Galanti

We all must let go eventually.

Sometimes it’s letting go of a friendship. A husband. A career. A child. A parent.

The toxic friend who suffocates you and puts you down. The husband who can’t commit. The career that stresses you out. The child who needs to learn from his own mistakes. The parent who dies.

Or letting go of the parts of your book you’re writing that work–until they don’t work anymore.

Some people call it “killing your darlings” like William Faulkner noted. He said, “in writing, you must kill all your darlings.” He also said, “a writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.”

Your imagination lets your words fly free. Your experience enables you to harness them. Your observation arms you with the weapon to indeed kill those darlings. I like to call it “letting go” (I enjoy doing enough killing in my fiction).

At a writer’s retreat lakeside in Northern New York long ago (led by editor, author, and friend Kathryn Craft) I read from one novel-in-progress. A strong theme of the novel was about finding peace in life through balance, emotional vs. physical. My fellow retreaters pointed out that several of my characters had disabilities.

A one-legged girl. A bald-headed lady. A young man with a club foot. A young woman with lopsided breasts. I was told that unless this was a novel about circus freaks, it was too much.

Uh, yeah. 😊

I had to laugh. They were right. I needed to decide what would stay and what to let go that no longer served the purpose of the story. I had to find the one select physical character issue and let that shine throughout the story arc. And I realized that a character’s imbalance need not be physical, it could be on the inside–a flawed internal imbalance that he has to face.

I was comforted also by the fact my fellow retreaters told me that letting go of what doesn’t serve your story is the sign of maturity in a writer.

And this is what writing a first novel draft is about. Writing it all in, and then letting go. What we start out with is not what we end up with, and it can’t stay the same if it’s going to work. Like life. We must let go of what no longer serves us.

And in the creating of that which we may let go, we develop the skills needed as a writer–and we absorb these skills along our journey, often without knowing it. We’re building a bridge that may get disassembled and moved to another location, but we would never get to that final location without the first bridge. We let that first bridge go, in order to gain.

In my novel, A Human Element, my publisher sent back edits on the villain, X-10. She said it was enough that he was a murderer. He didn’t also need to rape and be incestuous toward his sister. Having him be all three didn’t strengthen the story. It was overkill and took away from the complexity of his character and derailed the emotional scene at the end. I agreed and–I let go. And it worked. Many readers tell me that that X-10 is their favorite character and they feel sympathetic toward him, even with all the vile deeds he does.

In Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit she notes that what all successful artists have in common is that “they have mastered the underlying skills of their creative domain, and built their creativity on the solid foundation of those skills.”

Tharp also writes that “skill is how you close the gap between what you see in your mind’s eye and what you can produce.” And that is what letting go in writing is, closing the gap between a new idea and a refined one.

I remember the first time I let go of my son’s hand years ago and let him run out in the wide open spaces. He jogged crookedly across a vast field. His toddler legs carried him wildly as he headed into the great unknown. I knew it was time to let him go for a bit. I could still see him and that would have to be enough. But anxiety gripped my heart until his small hand was back in mine, warm and gripping.

My son in later years at 10 started biking to school by himself. His friends were all doing it. It’s only half a mile. Down the path. Over the bridge and through the woods. Across the road. I could see his route. We had walked it so many times. And I signed the school form giving him permission and I waved goodbye as he left for school. A letting go that hurts. But I know now that these letting go’s won’t always hurt. My son doesn’t need saving from all the scary things in the world, he needs encouragement to embrace his freedom. He can be his own hero. I hope I can too in the wide open spaces of my writing.

What we start out with is not what we end up with. And it can’t stay the same if we want to move on. In writing. In life.

I let go of my mother in past years. I held her hand. I said my goodbyes. I cherished the time. She drifted away. And then I let go.

No regret.
Just peace.

The blessing in letting go is to let go with no regret. It makes the experience all worthwhile. An experience that shapes you. Changes you. Matures you. Makes you a better person. Makes you a better writer.

What have you let go of recently, in writing or in life?

Did you do it without regret? What did you learn from it?

About Donna:
Donna Galanti is the author of the bestselling paranormal suspense Element Trilogy and the children’s fantasy adventure, Joshua and The Lightning Road series. Donna is a contributing editor for International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine and regularly presents as a guest author at schools. She’s lived from England as a child, to Hawaii as a U.S. Navy photographer. Donna has long been a leader in the Mid-Atlantic writing scene as a workshop presenter and is a writing contest judge at nycmidnight.com. Visit her author website at donnagalanti.com.

21 responses to “Letting Go: In Writing and in Life”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    This sounds like my yoga instructor: "We must let go of what no longer serves us." (although she adds "today" because things change.)

    I just finished the first complete draft of the WIP. Now it's time to take your excellent advice and get with the editing.

    • donnagalanti says:

      Your yoga instructor has wise words there, Terry! And I like the idea of adding "today" as indeed, what serves us can change over time - and the same goes for our writing too. In filling my writer's toolbox over the years from classes, workshops, craft books, and practice, my writing style and process has changed and so I must adjust to that as I go. Congrats on finishing that WIP! Happy editing 🙂

  2. Lovely post, Donna. A great way of looking at editing and revising (and life!).

  3. Hi Donna, I remember that retreat! Of course I was hoping the novel would actually be about circus performers...

    Right now I have a novel out on submission, which is another form of letting go. There is absolutely nothing I can do right now to advocate for this beloved story of my heart. Like a child off to find his place in the world, I have to have faith that it was ready and well prepared.

    Time to write another.

    • donnagalanti says:

      Kathryn, yes, that retreat was so long ago but so vivid in my mind! And you bring up a great point - how we must let go of our stories eventually in many ways: to an agent, a publisher, on submission, and to our readers. It then becomes a "letting go" in the hands of others, and we can only wish it well on its journey after all our hard work. I know your beautiful story is ready and well prepared as I've had the honor of being a first-reader of course! And I'm eager to see it find the perfect home. 🙂 Now go get writing!

  4. Laura Drake says:

    I had to let go of my sister 34 years ago. I thought I'd done it completely (as much as you can let go of the closest person in the world to you, anyway). But when I wrote a book dedicated to her, just two years ago, and the two sisters in the book had our bond, I let go of something big - I let go that I couldn't save her.

    I didn't even know I was holding onto that.

    Isn't writing amazing? Thanks for the touching blog.

    • donnagalanti says:

      Laura, I'm touched by your story and how now, even all these years later, you were carrying that with you. It sounds like writing our story was a healing experience. I lost my mom 9 years ago and I still carry her with me each day. I often thought in her passing, how long does it take to 'get over losing someone?' and I realized you never do and things connected to them can impact you still years later. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Julie Glover says:

    There was a scene I adored in my YA book that took like three separate edits to finally realize it was no longer moving the story forward. It ached when I moved that scene from the book to the "save these scenes" (aka delete) file. But when I read through the book later, it was stronger. Hard to let go, as you say, but worth it in the end. Thanks for the reminder, Donna!

    • donnagalanti says:

      Julie, I know just how you feel! I am revising a beast of a manuscript now and painfully cutting scenes I love. I also cut two characters I love, for the same reason - they did not move the story forward or connect to the main character's arc. And I placed these parts all in a document to save as well. If it makes you feel hopeful for them, let me tell you that I wrote my first book long ago that never went anywhere and sits in a shoebox. However, years later I pulled it out and used a battle scene from it in the 2nd book in my middle grade series that is published. So yes, those scenes and characters can creep in to other places unexpectedly in the future!

  6. What a lovely essay! I agree with your point that first drafts are for collecting all the elements that make up the story in our minds. Some may be able to carefully outline before writing and then strictly adhere to that outline, but I always end up whittling away at my over-long, bushy first drafts. And that's okay. In the end, it works.

    • donnagalanti says:

      Thank you Rhonda! It's interesting as I've found that the process for me with first drafting can change from book to book. Some books call to be written chronologically and some others are written out of sync. But I agree, it's whatever works for you!

  7. Fae Rowen says:

    Letting go of someone or some thing with lots of memories attached is one of the hardest personal things for me to do. And letting go of certain scenes is next to impossible, as my brilliant editor Tiffany Yates Martin will attest to over multiple WIP edits. Donna, your take on the process seems gentle, but productive and possible for me. Thank you!

    • donnagalanti says:

      Fae, I'm glad this was helpful! Oh, and a good editor is a gem! I have found this out too myself with them helping me cull and shape to make the story the best it can be. It's a challenging and fulfilling process. I think, we also create memories with our WIPs too. I recall what I was doing and where I was in writing scenes and how they came to me. So, it makes it especially hard to cut things from it too.

  8. Donna Wichelman says:

    Donna, thank you for reminding all of us that sometimes our best writing doesn't happen until we are willing to let go of the one thing that is preventing it from shining. All the best, Donna

    • donnagalanti says:

      Donna, you put this perfectly! Thanks for sharing. It reminds me of how I had to let go of editing my work as I wrote, as it was preventing me from finishing my first book. When I finally let that go and gave myself permission to write that first, messy draft I was able to write THE END, and that was so freeing because then I knew I could do it again, and again.

  9. […] Zoe M. McCarthy says to look for these 5 common problems when self-editing, Donna Galanti discusses letting go in writing and in life, and Anne R. Allen lays out 7 dos and don’ts when you’ve finished your first […]

  10. dholcomb1 says:

    I know a writer who was trying so hard to make a pitch to a certain channel, she was putting everything she thought it needed into her book, and instead it had too much. She didn't cut the fat, and her story suffered for it.

    denise

    • donnagalanti says:

      Thanks for sharing! Sometimes less is more indeed with our stories, and ideally we need to streamline them so that with each scene in the story we reveal theme, move the story forward or connect to the character growth. Sometimes we can get distracted by all the shiny things we can put in our story but if it's not moving the story forward and just bogging it down, then we need to recognize that and cut it.

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