Once again, it’s the time of year for gifts and resolutions. First, we’re supposed to wish for what we want, whether wishing takes the form of a letter to Santa Claus, hints to our loved ones, impulse buying for ourselves, or prayer. Then, we’re supposed to resolve to meet our goals for the coming year. For many, this involves grim determination: we must get that job, publish that manuscript, lose that weight. The catch is that grim determination is not a good method of capturing the bluebird of happiness. The other catch is that things happen the way they happen, not the way we want them to, most of the time.
It’s no secret that I subscribe to the theory that life is a lot more manageable if we take it one day at a time. The concept of New Year’s resolutions posit that life must be attacked in giant, indigestible one-year gobbets. Everybody knows this doesn’t work. But people continue to pursue the triumph of optimism over experience and go on resolving to force the outcomes they want.
What’s the opposite of this approach? It has many names: acceptance; detachment; wanting what you have, as opposed to insisting on getting what you want and feeling miserable, cheated, and defeated if you don’t. I like to call it letting go.
I’m no saint. I’m not saying that I enjoy letting go. But it’s a great alternative to frustration, envy, and a host of other unpleasant states of mind. I’ve learned this lesson over and over. Being human, I forget. But life has a way of reminding me that letting go is both inevitable and effective as a way of dealing with whatever comes up.
At Bouchercon in October, I learned—not for the first time, but I needed to hear it again—what a valuable tool letting go can be for writers. I attended a panel on the state of the short story market. The panelists were the editors of the two remaining and highly respected print journals that publish short mystery fiction and two authors who have published many stories in these journals over the years. My moment of enlightenment came in the answer to a question I asked the panel.
I don’t always raise my hand at these things, but I really wanted to know what they’d say. In the course of the discussion, they’d already confirmed that these are the only two major paying print markets for mystery stories and that both journals refuse to consider revised and resubmitted material as a matter of policy.
I started by mentioning that I’d had two stories accepted for one of these journals. I brushed off the patter of applause at that, adding that two other stories had been rejected by both the journals. What, I asked, could I do with these two stories? Should I go back and revise them, try to make them better? Should I submit them to the e-zines, a less prestigious but perhaps more receptive market?
You guessed it. Both veteran writers had the same opinion: let them go. Write the next story. Move on. “I hate it when I have to let go,” I muttered to a couple of friends in the audience with me. But I knew the writers were right. I’d learned it before as a writer, when I gradually developed the ability to “kill my darlings.” Then, the “darlings” were a treasured adverb, a witticism, a cherished scene that failed to advance the story.” These were just bigger darlings: whole stories. And since then, my wise and valued agent has said the same about a manuscript or two.
Perseverance, even persistence, is one thing. Hanging on when you need to let go is another. Letting go is so often the only path to peace of mind, fresh ideas, and sometimes success and happiness that may come in unexpected, even unimaginable forms. So it’s a gift. And I think I’ll commit to letting go whenever I need to today...and then tomorrow...and the day after that. So it’s a resolution.