on (not) letting go

Two events have me feeling a bit unsettled. Over the weekend I sent out my short story to be reviewed by the members of the writers’ workshop I’ll be attending later in the summer. This morning I returned the proofs of another short story to the editors of the magazine that will publish it in the fall.

When is a piece of writing complete enough to be sent out into the world? I know that I’ve done all I can to both of these stories for now. Last week my head was swimming from looking at them so many times. I could no longer read them and see where change could occur. I could no longer read them, period.

And yet: I did not feel that the story I sent to the writers’ workshop was quite … well, it just wasn’t there yet. I wanted more time to think about it. If I did not have the workshop coming up, I would have put the story away for a few months then come back to it. I would have written another story that included one of the characters from this one, which would have helped me develop that character further in the original story. It’s likely I will still do that. But I know that the raw story is out there somewhere, and while that’s OK (I am, after all, looking forward to getting feedback on the piece, and there needs to be room for feedback) I feel uneasy about it, too.

As for the proofs, I had not looked at that story in several months, and it felt very different to me after all that time. I felt that I could tweak the writing quite a bit. Is there a point at which writers feel they can stop tweaking words here and there? I think that if you’re at the point where you’re just making those kinds of small adjustments it means you’re done, and yet. I made a few small changes to the proofs, not as many as I could have, or wanted to, because I know that the time for lots of changes — just made because I wanted to make them — had passed. I had to let it go. I feel a sense of excitement that the story will soon be published, but at the same time, I’m horrified. How can that story be published?! I want to keep tweaking and adjusting and changing things. But I have to let it go. It’s time to move on to something else.

Do authors ever return to their previous books and wince? Do authors ever return to their previous books at all? I remember when I went to hear Joan Didion read in Boston and she said she never thought about her earlier works or her body of writing as a whole. She dismissed them as if they didn’t exist. “It was just something I wrote,” she said.

When does one get to the point where what you’ve written feels like that, “just something I wrote,” instead of some long process involving lots of anxiety and overprotective feelings and an inability to let go?


4 thoughts on “on (not) letting go

  1. I think many writers don’t ever let go! I believe John Updike used to edit his copy when he’d read aloud from published books. Annie Proulx called The New Yorker to add the ending line of Brokeback Mountain, long after it was “done” and ready to be set in type.

    We are different people when we come back to something that has cooled off. At some point, though, we’re just fiddling.

  2. I like what Richard just said. (About us being different people when we return to early work.)

    I also have absolutely no idea how to let go. This may be because I am up to my neck in the MFA and revision and putting together my thesis. Lately I have been feeling like every word I have ever written (good and bad) are all rattling around in my head. What’s more, I don’t feel like any of it is original or interesting or all that different. I have written more in the last two years than ever and it’s made me notice patterns in my writing, the way my characters continually fall back on the same sorts of gestures, or how I always write dialog tags the exact same way. So I have no idea how to look at anything I’ve written as something independent from everything else I’ve written.

    I hope this feeling passes, either with time or forceful forgetting.

  3. Yes, we’re definitely different people when we come back to something, which for the most part is a good thing in terms of reevaluating the writing. I like that tidbit about Annie Proulx adding the ending of “Brokeback Mountain” at the last minute.

    Margosita, I felt the same way when I was working on my thesis. It’s hard at the end of an MFA program because you don’t have the luxury of putting your work away for a few months and then coming back to it. In my last couple of months of revisions on my thesis I was incapable of seeing anything that could be radically altered (though I knew that it needed to happen) and instead just kept fiddling with wording and streamlining sentences. Even now, four years later, it’s hard for me to revise that material because I read it so much before. But I can now see where I can make big changes. Still, I look back on that thesis-writing time with awe, because I have not been so immersed in writing as much before or since. My point is, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you feel like you’re swimming in your work. When you finish your thesis you will probably spend time working out what kind of writer you are and how you write — separate from (but incorporating) what you learned in the MFA, and it will all become clearer. You will probably look back on this time and think of it fondly, because of how central writing is to you right now, a luxury that’s hard to maintain.

  4. Lots of writers seem to have been unable to leave things alone, especially poets. Final ‘complete poems’ editions seem to include huge amounts of corrections/changes. The interesting thing is, though, that they very seldom make much of a difference to the reader. I’m reading Borges Selected Poems at the moments and each selection from a particular volume seems to mention ‘minor’ changes. But I very much doubt if they’d make much of a difference to me the reader.

    So I suspect there’s a point where the changes mean everything to the writer but start to drop below the reader’s awareness threshold. Having said that, Annie Proulx is a bit of the exception that proves the rule.

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