By Karen DeBonis
In the fall, I asked my husband to move a rhododendron shrub from a crowded spot between the house and the back steps. It was so tight, I knew he couldn’t get in there to dig without breaking and trampling branches. So, with a deep breath, I lopped off multiple stems with huge buds that would have produced glorious white blossoms next year.
As I mourned the branches lying on the ground, it occurred to me that I had killed my darlings.
But I knew my “Rhody” would thank me by being stronger and more beautiful next year. And I realized that the process of letting go of what we love is itself an act of love.
Isn’t that the perfect metaphor for our writing? Let go to love more.
Later this week, as I do every January, I’ll take a ten-year old accordion file folder from the attic, dust it off, and empty it, piece by piece, into the recycling bin or the shredder. Last year, when I purged my 2010 folder, I came across a stack of my son’s paystubs that had landed in our folder.
My son, Matthew, had graduated from college two years earlier—in the midst of the great recession—and had found and lost multiple jobs in that time. His neuropsychologist told us it was to be expected when children with a brain tumor like Matthew’s grow up and join the workforce. College is structured, the doctor explained, but many worksites are not, presenting challenges for a compromised brain.
In 2010, my manuscript—a memoir about my compulsive people-pleasing and its impact on my son’s illness--had been languishing in the attic for over five years.
I didn’t consider myself a writer then because I hadn’t written anything more the occasional birthday card during those five years. I seldom thought about the book I had been so passionate about before. I didn’t recognize my son’s paystubs as the documentation gems they were. Six years later, I revived my manuscript, so I was ready when I found those paystubs last year.
Had I not intended to let go, I never would have found what was intended.
Last year—2020—was my year of memoir purging.
I’d joined a Zoom critique group of memoirists and membership included submitting chapters for comment. My manuscript was done and, at first, I didn’t want to open it up for comment. But when I reread it for the first time in months, I found all the usual suspects that needed editing:
I practically wore my delete button bare.
In the process, I opened space for deeper, more introspective writing. I discovered I hadn’t said all that needed to be said. Incorporating some new material helped my memoir became more powerful, more universal, more authentic.
Letting go enabled me to grow.
My experience in 2020 helped me realize some truths about letting go in the writing process.
The purpose in cutting unexciting or ill-fitting material from your manuscript is to shine a spotlight on the glittering gems that remain. You and your readers will love your book even more (if that’s possible).
Be purposeful and strategic in your cutting. Can you find ten words you won’t miss on every page? One hundred words per chapter? What hidden gems were left behind? (See number 1, above.)
Further Reading: See Barbara Probst’s post on scene coherence for some great editing insight.
If you are undecided about cutting a passage or section, move it to a different document and live with it for a few days or weeks to see how you feel about its absence. Can you fill the space with better material? Is there something you want to say on the page that you haven’t? Use the opportunity to take your writing to the next level.
I don’t know what I’ll find in a few days when I start pulling papers from my folder. Every year, as more and more household transactions occur online, the attic folders get thinner and thinner. Matthew’s had the same job for two years, and does his own taxes now. I doubt I’ll find any of his paperwork.
And yet, I remind myself…my memoir is less about the growth in my son’s brain, and more about the personal growth of his mother. I’m eager to find more discoveries about that woman from ten years ago, because she certainly isn’t who I am now.
What about you? What will you purge and welcome in 2021?
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Karen began writing twenty years ago after her eleven-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Those early pages are now a real-life medical mystery about a mother who must overcome her toxic agreeability if she's to save herself and her son. The manuscript is currently in submission for publication.
A happy empty-nester with her husband of thirty-seven years, Karen lives and writes in upstate New York. You can find out more about her journey at www.KarenDeBonis.com.
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