As a professional organizer, I’m constantly encountering people who can’t let things go. A faded photograph, a child’s broken toy, a lock of hair–these are the artifacts of a life, the evidence of ourselves we leave behind. They are little pebbles in the dams we build to hold back our own mortality.
As a graduate student in medieval studies, I was constantly struck by the austere beauty of Old English poetry. Anglo Saxon warriors believed that their immortality lay in their reputation after death, in the words they left behind. Scops committed those words to memory, preserving in beautifully stark imagery the deeds of fallen heroes that have sifted down to our cluttered century.
When I was an undergraduate in college, in love with ideas and possibilities, I felt certain that the world was populated by ghosts–not the spirits of the dead, but shadows of the selves we’ve once been, trailing behind us in a long procession. I hung out with other English majors and produced phenomenally bad poetry dissecting my childhood experiences. It’s still tucked away in a drawer in my desk. It’s still really bad.
Recently, a friend posted a link to an article about an exhibit that’s been haunting me. A photographer documented the suitcase contents of inmates at an asylum. As I scrolled through images of hairbrushes, mementoes, and other odds and ends, tears flooded my eyes. These people once existed, and now they’re gone, leaving behind them only the intimate, mundane traces of shattered lives.
We hold so tight to things and words. I wonder what would happen if we held this tightly to each other.
Over the past month, I’ve been revising my first novel. In order to have a better shot at publication in the YA market, I set out to hack my unwieldy 96,000-word story down to an acceptable 80,000 words, the recommended length for an initial submission. My novel wasn’t always 96,000 words. It started at a monstrous 130k. The thing was a leviathan.
My first novel. My baby. Of course it was perfect. Right? I was completely smitten with my own words. They were sooooo pretty. When I revisited the story, I was determined to cut what wasn’t necessary, what didn’t develop character or drive the plot. I ended up with a not-so-svelte 96k.
Then I joined a critique group. I learned a lot. Perhaps the most valuable lesson was that I can’t just barf out genius. Not every word that falls from my tapdancing fingers is gold. Imagine that. I researched the publishing industry, got a better sense of what I needed to do, and started cutting away. It was like a slasher film over here. Words were falling left and right. Occasionally they screamed in agony. Well, maybe that was me. Sometimes it was a messy breakup. Every once in a while, I took pity on them and imprisoned them in a file of random stuff that I loved but could no longer justify keeping in my story. They’re still hanging out there, like the picture of that guy you had a crush on in high school that you know you should get rid of but can’t. He was pretty, but useless. But he was sooooo pretty.
I’ve learned a lot over my slasher month. Perhaps the most important lesson for me has been that it’s not only okay to let go, it’s healthy. I’m still having this metaphysical internal debate about what exactly happens to a word when I cut it. It existed once, right? So if I cut it, where does it go? Is there word heaven? Do curse words get to go there, too?
Like the Anglo Saxons, who saw this world as a brief moment between vast uncertainties, I don’t know. But what I do know is that not every word I write is sheer magic. Some of them are sheer crap. Seriously. A lot of them. CHOP!!
And somehow, I feel free. Freeing yourself from yourself is pretty heady stuff. I slashed late into the night, drunk with the power of being able to let go.
I don’t want my children to grow up thinking that everything they do is amazing. I want to offer them a mother who makes mistakes with enthusiasm and then addresses them with good will. A slasher writer.mom. I want them to know that they’re not perfect, and I’m far from perfect, and that’s really okay. Better than okay. Every day, I have to let go a little more. Every day, I’m reminded that childhood is ephemeral. Every day, I fight the nagging urge to try to be perfect, and just be present instead.
When did imperfection become a bad thing, something to be avoided at all costs? It strikes me as an act of violence to try to divorce ourselves from the reality of our own imperfection. What makes us human and beautiful and overwhelming and real is what we do with the mistakes we make. It’s an act of violence, too, to foist your own imperfection on the world and declare that it is perfection. When we do this, we lose the perspective that moves us forward.
I’m not saying my first novel is great. But I am saying it’s 80,000 words. It’s far from perfect, but it has reminded me that I’m not really in it for perfection. Perfection is a destination that, like heaven or Valhalla, you’re not going to reach in this lifetime. The mess along the way–well, that’s the good part.