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?
* * * * * *
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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Good plan, letting go.
I have a rough draft from beginning to end of the mainstream trilogy I'm working on. Before writing each scene in the WIP, I gather material for it, including what I call the 'Old Text.'
There was a lot of good stuff there - I needed to know I could get from one end of a story to the other without impossible plot holes, or indeed, impossible plot points, and I created that super-rough version of the story. My writing partner suffered through it as I wrote it (and I, hers).
My biggest problem now is letting >98% of that draft go. I'm a much better writer than I was when I started in 2000, or when I finished that draft. The story has evolved, thank goodness, and so have the characters. It is seductive, sitting there, formatted correctly, with the very best writing and plotting I had at that time.
But, as I've written the final draft, every single piece of the Old Text I've tried to use has bogged me down! Re-vision is also re-imagining and re-creating. The OT's going, but kicking and ranting.
I did read it first. That's all it will get.
I can relate to so much of what you expressed, Alicia. I'm not even sure I could find my first drafts from almost 20 years ago (they may be on our dinosaur of a computer up in the attic), but I know there are scenes I'd love to find a home for some day. I'd probably have to start from scratch, though, my writing was so rough back then. It sounds like your OT served you well, as did mine, and I'm glad we're both moving on.
I may have been a bit unclear: the SCENES will stay, mostly, in some form - and are not going to find a home elsewhere. But the WRITING of those scenes starts from scratch for the final version. I knew what I wanted to achieve - but skills have to be developed, and I did NOT have them twenty years ago. There will be no Go Set a Watchman.
Which reminds me to put such drafts into encoded files - with unguessable passwords! Thank goodness there is no paper copy anywhere. 🙂 Bad drafts!
My bad, Alicia, and I hear what you're saying--the scenes stay, but the writing of them improves. I lacked the skills I needed 20 years ago, too. (Still do, many days!) But you have a vision, and have developed the skills, and I wish you much luck moving forward with both!
I appreciate your good wishes. Don't apologize! I have really enjoyed reading these scenes again, with the view to seeing what, if anything, might be salvageable. I've also enjoyed that I have improved in many ways, making this project of the heart better.
I never realized I would be this slow at it, but illness doesn't follow orders very well, and I'm not the only person who has taken a long time to write a particularly complex story, but I like the results.
Some things just have to steep.
Karen, I think all of us can relate to the struggle to let go. I still remember working with my first critique group--wonderfully helpful folks--and wrestling with the need to interrupt and justify those beautiful scenes that didn't move the story forward. Letting go is hard but necessary.
Thanks Ellen. Oh, I know those beautiful scenes that don't move the story forward...so many of them, lol. It's hard to hear what others, even well-meaning writers, have to say about out work. But it's all part of the learning curve, right?
Karen, it's interesting because I've seen my tendency to think my written words are the best words. And of course, they are not.
When I am having trouble with a scene, I re-write the entire scene. There is no other way around to The End for me. The siren song of the original writing is to strong for me to resist, unless I have new words to replace them. I might edit it by including words from the original, but not until I've stepped away and done a complete re-write.
Jenny, I love how you say you've "seen your tendency" to think your words are best. I think that's a real skill- to be able to step back and objectively observe your behavior, which allows you to be objective about your words. And, I hear the siren's song, too. It's sent me on many whole project searches trying to find that exact phrase that I love so much. I don't think I've completely started something over from scratch, but I'm going to keep that in mind...
This is a lovely post, Karen--and great advice. Thanks!
Thanks Tiffany--I'm glad you found it useful!
I have let go of some of my early works. They were still worth writing--they helped me get to where I am.
I agree 100%, Denise, that we have to do the early writing to grow as writers, and for our work to get to where it needs to be. For my memoir, I wrote pages and pages of the early years in my marriage, and my son's early years, only tidbits of which remain in my manuscript. But I had to go through that process. It's like learning to crawl before we walk.
Great post. Your comment early on about killing your darlings reminded me of a Stephen King quote from his book, On Writing where he wrote “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” This advice seems to have worked for him.
HI Karen, thanks for sharing your insights. I remember working with you on the synopsis for your memoir. I'm thrilled it's out on submission. Congratulations.
What a lovely comment, Suzanne! It's nice to see you over here at WITS. 🙂
I enjoyed reading this. I just started writing. I have always wanted to be a writer. Well, I have always wanted to write a good novel is the truth. I have been inspired by good books and some unreadable books have also inspired me. This website was recommended in a Google search. Glad I found it.