This week, Sara Etgen-Baker shares how she began a new chapter in her writing life by letting go.
When I began writing in 2010, I was especially comfortable and adept in writing memoirs about the people of my childhood and early adult years in my native Texas. I became known for my ability to connect with readers by giving them authentic, familiar characters, a sensitive narrator, and a keen sense of place—but in 2014, I turned to fiction writing and began the rather daunting task of writing my first novel.
I was the first to admit that I knew little about writing fiction or writing something as major as a novel, but I had an idea birthed from a real-life family situation. So, I began and painstakingly put words on pages hoping to create convincing characters, scenes with emotional value, and a believable storyline that would engage and captivate readers. Oh, how I labored over my characters and scenes!
The months passed. Words slowly became pages, and pages became chapters. By December 2016, I was deeply into writing Chapter 15 (of approximately 20 chapters). When the new year arrived, however, I became increasingly dissatisfied with my story and disillusioned with my ability to complete my novel. Honestly, I simply wasn’t motivated.
I’m not a quitter, though, and flatly refused to give up on a project begun so humbly years ago. I began losing sleep and often laid awake at night thinking about my characters—their strengths, their flaws, and their humanity. During the early morning hours, I played with the story line, scenes, plots, and subplots. With the lack of sleep, I became even more muddled and confused.
January gave way to February. Sunless, harsh days prevailed; winter’s blue dreariness settled over me, further stifling my creativity. March arrived, bringing the warmth of the sun’s rays, but I was still unable to write.
Last week, I sat down at my desk with the sole task of making some sense of my collection of notes and putting some order to my rather haphazardly organized files. I hoped that task would ground me, but alas, it only served to further muddy the novel-writing waters.
So, I took to power walking a couple of hours a day hoping that the fresh air and open space would broaden my horizon and give me perspective. At this point, I’m quite certain my neighbors, amazed as they are with my persistence and dedication, questioned why I walked for so long.
Then, I took to pruning flowers in our garden, pulling weeds (symbolic? yes), and working myself to the point of exhaustion, believing that exhaustion would surely help me sleep. Still, sleep alluded me. Something about my novel was haunting me—but what was it?
Then yesterday, I had an epiphany of sorts. I am a vastly different person now than I was when I began writing my novel, yet I was trying to write and create from my old perspective. My characters had become unauthentic, and my scenes evoked no emotions—they were ineffective, extraneous, and disconnected from the overall story line. Every word I’d written seemed flat.
So in desperation, I re-read my synopsis and each of my completed chapters. Then came the stark realization that so many novelists face: This was my “shitty” first draft. No doubt about it. What I’d written thus far wasn’t that good at all. Disappointment and mild panic set in. For the first time since I began writing, I actually feared beginning again.
Before opening my laptop to begin anew, I literally marked through anything that didn’t enrich the story, eliminating so many words, paragraphs, pages, and even entire scenes and chapters. Now, I’m left with only about six good chapters, and I have huge gaps in my story line and in my character development.
Ah, where to go from here? I shall begin at the beginning and start anew, knowing that I’ve not failed at novel writing. On the contrary, I’ve been tremendously successful and gutsy. I’ve been on a learning curve—and a huge one at that!
The most important lesson I’ve learned is this: To grow as a person, I had to let go of old truths, old thinking, and old habits. I had to relinquish my control of expectations and outcomes and allow my life to unfold naturally.
To grow as a writer, I must let go of old words and unproductive writing habits. I need to relinquish my control of a specific outcome then let my story unfold, for it’s in the unfolding that my story will develop naturally. It’s in my letting go where the heart of both life and story lie and where creativity truly dwells.
I returned to my laptop, opened it, clicked on Microsoft Word, and began a new chapter in my writing life. And, yes, I’m exhausted—but oddly I’m refreshed.
I bet I’ll sleep better tonight!
Sara’s love for words began when her mother read the dictionary to her every night. Her manuscripts have been published in various anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Wisdom Has A Voice, My Heroic Journey, Times They Were A Changing: Women Remember the 60s and 70s, and The Santa Claus Project. When not writing, Sara spends time with her husband of 34 years, Bill. Sara has been a member of the Dallas Branch NLAPW since 2014. She enjoys the support and fellowship her affiliation with NLAPW brings into her writing life. She may be contacted via email at: email@example.com.
“Pruning Fruit Tree – Cutting Branches at Spring” by adamr/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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