Thursday, December 31, 2009

Letting Go: Both Gift and Resolution

Elizabeth Zelvin

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.


Anonymous said...

This is exactly what I needed to read on New Year's Eve. Thank you.

Sheila Connolly said...

You're right, and you know how hard it is. I have about a million words (seriously) sitting on a shelf, and the rational part of me says that's right where they should stay. I learned a lot from setting them down, but sometimes you just have to move forward.

Happy New Year to all the Daughters and their readers!

Sandra Parshall said...

I don't think anything we write is ever wasted. I have characters in both Disturbing the Dead and Broken Places who started "life" in manuscripts I wrote, or tried to write, many years ago. Now and then somebody urges me to get those old mss out of the closet and try to sell them, but I know they aren't publishable. I'd rather rescue what's good about them and use it in something new. I suspect you'll do that with your short stories, Liz.

Sometimes the hardest thing to let go of is a friendship that's dragging you down. But you can't keep hanging out with somebody who makes you feel bad about yourself.

Julia Buckley said...

A very philosophical and wise post, Liz. I think about this notion a lot, not just in terms of my writing, but in terms of my human relationships. None of my significant relatives has died yet, and I know they won't live forever. I know I won't, either. So I reflect on the question: how long can we really hold on to anything, even life?

But of course the fleeting moments of success and happiness are worth the moments of letting go, because they, along with the painful times, shape our characters.

Your post has inspired me to become Confucius Junior.

Mike Dennis said...

Elizabeth, I was at that Bouchercon panel, and I remember your question, and their answer. I have the same problem, ie, several rejected stories sitting around, which I fear I will have to release into the deep. Those professional short story authors know what they're talking about after hundreds of stories, so it's pretty evident that this is the time to let go.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks for all your comments, which left me with a smile. Tonight we're letting the old year go and looking forward to the infinite possibilities of the new. Happy New Year!