Quite a few years ago, I did a lot of writing for a website that, in exchange for content, allowed me to advertise my own website. It was a great arrangement. I got to hone my writing skills and, ideally, drive buyers to my jewelry “shop.”
I received a comment on one of my articles that caused me to think a lot more about it than I might ordinarily. For the most part, fellow authors on the site wrote most of the comments I received. Rarely would a non-author take the time to leave a few words behind to let me know they had read it. So when I got one of those, I took note. And when they were less than complimentary, I especially took note.
It’s one of my goals as a writer to always improve my writing skills. This goes beyond mere grammar and spelling (which Microsoft Word does a fairly adequate job of monitoring and fixing). The words one uses and the orders in which they are applied are essential to getting ones meaning across as unambiguously as possible. Still, as careful as one might be, things might still be misconstrued. I’ve sent a number of what I thought were perfectly clear emails that ended up creating a lot of trouble.
Because we writers are privy to our thought processes (hopefully, but sometimes there are things going on in my head that I just don’t understand), we sometimes leave something out or write something in our personal “shorthand” that the reader might not understand. That comment I mentioned pointed this out to me very well.
The authors on the site I have mentioned who read my articles on a regular basis had come to know me a bit. They had learned about the way I think and become familiar with how I express myself. The casual, off the cuff reader had none of that. And when you add in this particular reader’s not very well expressed comment, it led to a lot of confusion on my part and my poor little brain was working hard to figure it out.
It finally did do that about half way through a 30 mile drive I was making shortly after reading the comment. I had cleared my mind so that I could focus on driving and then the real meaning of the comment became apparent to me. I struggled for the rest of the drive to focus on driving because a part of me wanted to rewrite the entire article to make what I meant clearer.
By the time I returned home many hours later, I no longer had the compulsion to rewrite it. I did however, think about leaving a reply to my reply that would hopefully explain things better. Ultimately, I decided that what I had written as my initial reply was fine. This led me to believe that my initial article as it was published was probably fine as well. Maybe not perfect, but good enough.
When I first started writing, I had the hardest time letting go of my articles. I would agonize over them for days wondering if they were actually finished and as good as they could be. Did they really say what I wanted to say? Were they entertaining? Enlightening? Were they any good at all?
I never went back and rewrote a single one of the articles I wrote for that site (and there were something more than 250 of them). Yes, I might correct a spelling error if I noticed it or fix a typo, but an actual rewrite … never. I had to ask myself why.
When my husband, Bernd, was first teaching himself to paint with watercolors, the thing he had the hardest time with was knowing when it was finished. Could it use another duckling sitting on the water? Did that tree need a little more light in the crown? Does this shadow firmly anchor the potted plant on the tile? He would agonize sometimes for days. But finally, he would decide to let go of it. He has never gone back and modified any of his paintings. Although there is one that he started over three times. The first iteration ended up on the floor, upside down, and smeared liberally all over the carpeting. You’re probably thinking, hmm watercolors, no big deal. Well, not really.
I would upon occasion, reread some of my earliest articles. I tended to sit there and cringe. I could have fixed them. But I didn’t. They are a history of my progress as a writer. But that isn’t the real reason I did not rewrite them.
Once I decide to let go of something I’ve written, it is finished … at least to my mind. Done. As perfect as I could make it. And that’s pretty much how I feel about anything that I’ve created. So to rewrite it would be to say that I had not done the best that I could at that time. That I had let go of something that was not ready to be let go. That I had failed to do my best. I don’t really have a problem with failure. I do it all the time and I’ve become accustomed to it, more or less. But to not have given something my best shot is not something I want to do and to think that I may not have disturbs me. So I didn’t rewrite. There might be a little unwillingness to firmly face reality at all times in there. I don’t know. But I do know that at some point, you just have to let go of it.
I’ve spent some time over the years studying and learning from the Tao Te Ching. I have a favorite “verse:”
“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.” This is from the translation by Stephen Mitchell.
Not only do you have to let go of what you have written, you have to also let go of the negative comments (it’s okay to hang onto the good ones). If you don’t let go of the negative bits it will undermine your confidence and tie you into so many knots you’ve no hope of escape.
Having written all that, I am, even so, now sitting here and wondering when this post will be ready for me to let it go. I will not tell you how many times I have reread and edited it.
Have I lived up to the implied promise in the title? Have I written clearly and unambiguously? Does it have a point? Was the point well made? And a more important question for me right now, when the time comes to hit the “Publish” button on my first novel, will I be able to do it? I certainly hope so.