It’s 4:57 a.m., and I just pressed “Send” on an e-mail. My revision of BIG MOUTH is zipping through cyberspace at this very moment, headed for my editor’s computer. Wait, no, a few seconds have passed. It’s probably already there.
And I can’t get it back.
Posting an e-mail isn’t like using a U.S. Post mailbox. You can’t stick a wad of gum on the end of a fishing pole and pull a letter back out if you change your mind. Seriously, I saw someone do that once. I was maybe six or seven, riding my white Schwinn (my first two-wheeler!) along the sidewalk when I saw a guy fishing for his letter. Like even if something DID stick to the gum, it would be HIS letter…. He could’ve been throwing back the ones that weren’t his, I suppose. Or maybe he wasn’t after his own letter, now that I think about it. Maybe he was after someone else’s! Goodness! I wonder if he ever hooked it? More juicy yet, I wonder what was IN the letter that made fishing it out so important? Ah, now there’s an idea for a story…
But alas, there’s no fishing rod long enough to reach from San Diego to New York, so it’s all a moot point. Big Mouth is with my editor now. And I’m here pondering the concept of letting go.
I talked this very issue over with my barista yesterday at Starbucks. (I know, I know, I swore I’d never cattle-call at their trendy counters, and I don’t even like coffee. But my library doesn’t open until 11:00, so this is the nearest place I can linger with my computer when I score precious morning hours away from home. So shoot me.) Mr. Barista was so earnest and sweet and articulate, sharing with me his fear of trying to finish the children’s book he’d started writing. He could feel the story taking on a life of its own, yet he wasn’t ready to let go of his original idea for it. He was also an experienced songwriter, so he understood that letting go was part of the creative process. He just wasn’t ready.
I understood his reluctance. It’s hard to proceed when your map has been torn and the bridges burned, especially when you’re a tad “control freak” like I am. But I’ve learned in the course of the two novels I’ve written, the two I’m in the middle of, and the picture books that I’ve drafted, that there always comes a point where you have to hand over the reins to the story. I watched master storytellers do this during my decade as an editor at Harcourt, and continue to see it in my current role as freelance editor. Not letting go results in a forced story, the sensation of sailing a river re-routed from its natural course, of riding a bicycle with permanent training wheels. You stunt the natural flow of the story and ultimately deprive yourself and your readers of the true wind-in-your-hair ride that makes stories so fun.
The confidence an author has over a story controlled is like me on my white Schwinn with its training wheels still on: Those gawdawful plastic trainers were clunky and made me totter, but I was content. I stayed upright, I avoided skinned knees, and I made it around the block with nary a fall. But even as I pedaled along, my older sister rode circles around me, zipping past and popping wheelies off the curb, the tall orange flag on the back of her banana seat flapping in the wind, her long brown hair doing the same. Her bike didn’t have trainers. Yet despite the scrapes on elbows and knees, she hooted and laughed. She was everything I wanted to be.
I wanted to be free to pop wheelies off curbs, I wanted to hoot doing it, and I wanted to feel the wind in my long hair. So I told my dad those training wheels had to go. He then ran behind me, holding the back of my seat as I struggled for balance. “Don’t let go!” I screamed. “I won’t!” he shouted. “Don’t let go!” “I won’t!” “Don’t let go!”… Silence.… My dad was far behind me, of course, waving and grinning and holding one thumb up. I was on my own, wobbling even more than I had with my training wheels on, hooting in terror, steering away from curbs…or at least I hoped I was. I couldn’t see a dang thing with that stupid wind blowing my hair across my eyes.
So did I munch it? Was an ambulance summoned? Or was my dad’s knowing when to let go the key to a whole new joy on two wheels? I won’t tell you that. I’ll just tell you that I took my hands off the handlebars of Big Mouth at page 150 and let the story steer itself. We teetered a few times and even ran over a character as the plot changed and he was no longer necessary, but the book is better for it. I’m certainly wiser for the ride: I’ve learned to let go despite the risk of bumps and scrapes. I’ve learned to let the wind blow things where it may. And I’ve learned to press “Send” and then close my e-mail program and move on.