The Gentle Art of Letting Go

I was ten years old when I met Claws. I say met, because, when it comes to cats, ownership is a tenuous concept. I remember I was sick that day when one of the ladies from our church came over with a scraggly white kitten she had found by the side of the road. I remember how we kept him in the garage for the first few weeks we had him, and I would rush out there in the mornings and pick him up out of his box and he would dig his tiny little claws into my hand.

We had some good times together. Sometimes he would stare at me with disdain while he sat on the couch. Sometimes he would stare at me with disdain while he batted his toys around. Sometimes he would stare at me with disdain while I whispered my darkest secrets into his pointy ears.

I loved that cat. I really did. But then one day he came home from a cat fight with his nose mangled to a bloody pulp. Didn’t think much of it at first, because, come on, he was a cat. I’d have been more worried if he wasn’t fighting.

But over the next few weeks the wound didn’t heal. Instead it started to fester, cracking and bleeding whenever he scratched at it. And when we finally took him to the vet the news was worse than I could have imagined. Skin cancer. I didn’t even know that cats could get skin cancer.

That was it. There was nothing they could do; nothing we could afford at least. So we had to put him down.

I am not a sentimental man. It’s not so much that I don’t like feelings, as I just don’t seem to have as many as some other people. But on that day, when I scratched Claws’s ears for the last time, when I hugged him and told him what a good cat he had been, when they took him away and closed the door, I bawled like a baby.

That’s the story. And here’s the point.

Sometimes you have to learn to let things go. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to fix it or make it better. Sometimes you have to learn to move on. And this is a thing we need to learn, not only as human beings, but more specifically as writers.

That story you’ve worked on for years, trying and failing to root out the causes of its failings? There’s nothing wrong with editing, but there comes a point where you might have to consider very carefully whether pressing forward is really worth the time you’re investing in it.

And with stories it’s hard. It’s hard because you’ve built this world, nurtured these characters, shaped these events like a microcosmic god, you’ve already invested so much of yourself into it that there’s a sense that if you give up on this you’re giving up on yourself. You say, “Think of all the time I’ve invested in this. It’s just around the corner, I know it is, just one more re-outline, just one more scene change and it’ll be right.” And so the story lurches on, a poor pathetic undead thing, forced to continue its agonized existence by the sheer force of your will.

Here’s the thing: sometimes you fail. It hurts to admit, but sometimes that story just isn’t very good. I had to face this recently with one of my own stories. It was the first book I had ever written, and I kept going back to it year after year thinking I could salvage it somehow. But last month I finally I realized the flaws in the narrative were just too deep to fix. I had to let it go.

But it isn’t a total loss. That story was the first step on a journey. And while I’m not yet the writer I want to be, I’m a whole heck of a lot better than the writer I used to be. And the stories I’m going to write are better than the stories I have written.

We fail, yes, but in failing we can learn. We can grow. But only if we can learn to accept failure for what it is: an opportunity to learn.

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