Sometimes we hang onto something far past the right time to let it go. Whether from a perspective that quitting is failure or just plain stubbornness, I’ve maintained things in my life, ignoring advice and sense, and later looked back in disbelief. How could I have been so blind to the signs that I was headed down the wrong path? Why did I keep fighting that uphill battle against reason? Why couldn’t I let go? The mullet I wore from my senior year of high school until my junior year of college is a fine example. It wasn’t stylish, it didn’t make me “metal”, and I certainly had plenty of people tell me that I would look better if I cut it. Why did I hang onto it? Stubbornness is at the top of the list of reasons. I felt like if I let it go, I would compromise something important about myself. In case any of you guys that told me to get a haircut read this, you were right. It didn’t make me a different person to cut my hair. I didn’t sell out to the man. Oh, I also lied about something (not like you believed me). I totally got it permed at one point, and I can agree now that it made me look like that guy from the band Air Supply.
It turns out that I repeat this same kind of stubborn attitude about my writing. The majority of the time, I’m better off listening to the advice I get from beta readers, even if I feel like I’m letting go of something important. It could be a character I really love, or a piece of dialogue that sounds cool to me when I read it aloud. Sometimes an entire story I think has promise falls completely flat when read by someone else. It can be extremely difficult to objectively look at something I’ve spent hours writing, almost like it’s a part of me that I lied about getting permed.
Hair will grow back. Well it used to before I hit my 40’s, but I could still grow a mullet if I really wanted to. There would certainly be a lot more party in the back than business in the front, but you get the idea. The same is true for my writing. Editing can work out the kinks in characters, plot, and dialogue. No first draft is ever very good compared to what it can become. There have been stories I’ve edited to death, trying to make them work, until I’m embarrassed to send another draft to the poor people willing to read them. There’s always something I think the magic of editing will fix, but sometimes a story that’s interesting to me just doesn’t have what it takes to draw in a reader’s imagination. Sometimes what I see in my mind that I think they’ll enjoy just doesn’t come out in the words I employ. Will I ever find the right words? Sometimes I do, and those successes are what keep me working to improve a story. Other times I fight with something until the referee would’ve called the bout rounds before, like Rocky and Apollo slugging each other until they both fall down. I hate to lose, and that’s what it feels like to shelve a story. It feels like the inner doubts I have about my writing get to win.
Every time I read that one of my favorite authors has a trunk full of unpublished novels, I start to feel better about letting my weak ideas sit unwritten. Even those I relinquish incomplete to gather dust are exercises that hold some value. Sometimes characters get recycled into stories that work better. Sometimes bits of dialogue stick in my brain until I find a character to say them. I’m beginning to see that the pieces I let go deserve a place on my shelves or my hard drive. When I read about Stephen King or Joe Lansdale holding onto finished novels they have no plans to publish, it tells me that learning to let something go is part of the journey I have to take to become a successful author. I have to get better at determining which projects are worth pursuing and which look better on the barber shop floor.