I’d been working on my fourth novel for over a year, had just passed the mark of one hundred pages, and was feeling quite positive. Time to put to test under other eyes.
My friend read, and we discussed: what was that brother character doing? Why was he in the story? What about the mother’s issues? So many questions. Certain elements that had been niggling at me were hauled up into the light. And in the light, they did not look so good. I’m not a fan of re-writing before I’m even finished the first draft. But — sad truth — of the one hundred pages, many needed to be re-written. Maybe more.
I remember, vividly, traveling home on the bus after that session, through grey November trees…and a Thought popped into my head.
I could toss those pages.
You make such a decision, and expect to feel a sense of grief. If you are a creative, you know what I mean: there’s the grief in the consistent rejection of a project for which you had hopes; there’s the grief in the postpartum of completing a long-term project; and there’s the grief in acknowledging the shortcomings of a project that has been months and years in making. Instead, to my surprise, I felt only…relief.
Next, I felt a wave of freedom. A sense of expansion. Of possibility. Where did this come from? Mostly, I felt ownership. It was, after all, my story. I could do whatever I liked with it. If the story had set off down the wrong path, I could grab it by the scruff, and set it right. Or I could take what I knew of my story in my gut and soul, and trust that on next go, I would be closer to finding stronger words, and weaving plot threads that promised to hold together. To do that, I needed to start over, so I tossed. All one hundred.
Well, not quite. I tucked the pages in the back of a drawer. There it sat, my Linus security blanket I could wrap around and over me, if I needed. I told myself I could take it out at any time, maybe even pull and use a paragraph from it. Or two.
Then I started all over again, with a fresh on-screen page, and wrote over. And again. And yet again. (Not once did I peek at those tossed pages.)
When the novel was published several years later, it was about 250 pages. I calculated that after the tossing and the re-working, over 1400 pages had gone into the creating of it. What happened to those 1150 pages?
If you write even just one page a day, at the close of a year, you will have 365 pages. No small thing. But what happens when you get rid of such a number? If writing one page a day, then that 1150 pages represents three years’ work.
Here’s what I have come to believe: all those 1150 pages become ghost pages. That is, the thoughts, hours, and energy that went into those pages was brought into existence, created, made solid, and even though tossed, cannot be destroyed. Those pages become, every one of them, a part of the whole. In the end, the work is no less for ever having lost even one paragraph. True, the words might be different — altered or seemingly not even there. But they are there. You had to write every one of those words in order for the published few to exist.
A writing career and lifetime is not about individual discrete pieces. It is about cumulative process. It is about hours of practice to hit one’s stride, to find one’s voice. You put in bum-to-seat time, learning about what makes a phrase sing, what makes a paragraph not fall off the page, what makes a character breathe down your neck to the point you shiver…and what makes you “toss.” That moment on the bus, rain sluicing the window next to me, and the birth of that thought to let go, has stayed with me, and I have thrown out thousands of pages now, years later. It is the story that counts, and the writing must serve the story. To let go is to be open to the story. To let go is to gain control.
So toss and be haunted. Invite the ghosts to a festive meal and celebrate.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, is ever wasted in a writer’s life.