Just Let Go: How to Avoid Transforming Your Great, Brilliant, Wonderful Story into a Dark Interminable Life-sucking Void

After a brief hiatus from this excellent writing collaboration, I am happy to return to the Five Writers blog! Full disclosure, this post was supposed to be up yesterday, October the 12th. I didn’t post because, well, it wasn’t done. I have a real problem with finishing my writing. Read on. 

I find it interesting that this topic marks my return to the blog, because finishing, or finding the ending, is what I struggle with most in writing. Let me give you an example.

I’m working on a novel right now. A great novel.

The story is based on actual events so bizarre they’re almost unbelievable in fiction. The protagonist is intriguing and shocking and somehow familiar all at the same time. The setting is gritty and real, with a family at the center that’s both dysfunctional and fiercely loving, and you’re rooting for them, even though you hate them a little, too. The story connects primal human instinct, animalism, with the civilized world. The work brings into question the repression and cultural expectations of the modern South. It’s got elements of the Southern Gothic, of tragedy, adventure and romance.

Maybe you think I’m kidding, and maybe you’re smirking a little right now, because you and I both know my book can’t be that great. But for the purpose of the illustration (and my pride, goddamn you) just go with me on this: my novel is great.

So, I’ve written this book, and written it, and written it some more, and the story has burned like a star in my mind, outshining all other stories. The need to perfect every scene, every paragraph, to endlessly rewrite has overwhelmed me. Perfection, I so sure it was possible. So sure that one morning I would wake up and find my writing flawless. Finished. Ready to go. Somebody call me an agent, I’ve got the next Great American Novel.

That morning never came (and, remember, this novel is great). Then one day, about four months ago, my bright star of a novel began to dim. The characters became less clear to me, less real. Every scene was inhabited by inept actors floundering in front of a cardboard set. Dimmer and dimmer, the story faded, and it began to break apart. It became a collection of writings loosely resembling an idea I had once.

I couldn’t pull it back together. The essential elements of the story, those burning truths, those abiding images, had disappeared entirely from my mind’s eye. I wrote them into oblivion. The story imploded. Now, when I open my notebook, when I open the most recent version of the file on my laptop, I feel as though I’m staring into a giant, ominous, life-sucking black hole.

Worst part is, I never found the ending. Oh, I’ve written the last chapter. I’ve got several versions of it, in fact. None of them are the conclusion. I was too busy going back, perfecting, nit picking, obsessing and, well, you get the picture.

This is all I can offer you, by way of advice on the topic of finishing your work. My testimony. As my mother* used to say, “If I cannot set a good example, I’ll just have to be a terrible warning.”

This could be your fate, gentle readers. This is what awaits you, if you don’t practice letting go. The work will never be perfect; your words will never capture the magnificent world you see in your imagination. That’s just the facts of life, and writing. On the bright side, this problem is proof of our exquisite minds. We see such amazing things, have such brilliant thoughts, that our words can never fully recreate them.

That said, here’s a few humble thoughts on how to avoid my fate:

Don’t obsess. Accept it. There will be flaws.

Set deadlines for yourself and stick to them. Well, do the best you can. I’m not one to preach about deadlines. See above.

Plan to submit. Be constantly searching for contests, calls for submissions, workshops, anything, to use as a goal for completion.

Get readers. This is something I didn’t mention before. After I finished grad school, I hid my novel away like Golem with the Ring, and it ruined my work. Perhaps, if I’d let more people read, someone might have mentioned that correcting the overuse of “had” on page 27 was less important than finding a conclusion to the novel.

Let it go. Just, let it go. Worst possible outcome: everybody hates it and rejects it. So what? By then, you’re already on to the next story, the next novel, the next screenplay, because you let the last one go. Trust me on this. I’ve learned the hard way.

*I’m pretty sure my mom borrowed this bit of wisdom from someone else. I’m not sure whom. Maybe Bill Cosby? He’s usually her go-to for parenting one-liners.


  1. #1 by My Rite of Passage on October 15, 2012 - 6:30 pm

    As a life coach, I say those words to clients often, and when someone does let go of outdated habits or negative emotions, the person’s relief is usually palpable. Having said that, with writing it’s good to sometimes step away temporarily, to reenergize, rethink, re-strategize, before re-engaging with it again.

    “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” — Buddha

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