Throwing Out Those Pages and Chapters

“And then the miracle happens…. So you… find yourself back at the desk, staring blankly at the pages you filled yesterday. And there on page four is a paragraph with all sorts of life in it, smells and sounds and voices and colors and even a moment of dialogue that makes you say to yourself, very, very, softly, ‘Hmmm.’ … and you don’t care about those first three pages; those you will throw out, those you needed to write to get to that fourth page, to get to that one long paragraph that was what you had in mind when you started, only you didn’t know that, couldn’t know that, until you got to it. And the story begins to materialize, and another thing is happening, which is that you are learning what you aren’t writing, and this is helping you to find out what you are writing.” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird)

Such good advice. I have a hard time knowing what to keep and what to toss — though I’m starting to get better at it. I’m thinking that maybe I need to start a new folder of pieces that grab me. No doubt I do need to toss the stuff that doesn’t, but I’m having a hard time doing that, just in case I want to explore those things later. The thing is, how do I know the difference between “stuff with potential” and the junk for which I need to take courage and “kill my darlings”?

And yes, this is also something I sometimes have trouble with as an editor — recommending “slashing and burning” — because I hate to hurt people’s feelings! But I’m getting better at that, too :-)

An interesting thought, though: leaving things alone for a period of time and then going back to them makes that slash-and-burn easier to see and to do. Like when a friend and I were going through her manuscript again a year or so after her initial edited version wasn’t getting accepted. We ended up agreeing that whole chapters needed to be slashed — and that made it so much better!

And I also want to know what it is I really should be writing. I have so much “old stuff” hanging around in the shadows. Should I just hit the “delete” button? Or maybe create an “old stuff” file that someone else can hit the delete button on when the time comes? And who is going to have the privilege of lighting a match to all my journals? Party time!

And then, what do I have to say that is really important to me? I was going to say “important to readers” but I’m beginning to suspect that if it isn’t really important to me first, my writing won’t be passionate and convincing enough to be important to others anyway. What do I really care about? What am I having a really hard time holding inside? What gives me tummy aches and heart pains when I try to hold it in? Maybe that’s a clue to it’s potential. You think?