Sunday, February 17, 2008

Letting go

By 8:30 this morning, I had deleted over 2,000 words from the current chapter I'm working on.

If you've been reading this blog for even a few weeks, you know that one of my anxieties is that the manuscript will not be long enough to be a real book. But this morning, I decided that a section that I had spent ten days researching and three days drafting not only wasn't very good, but simply Would Not Work. So other than a two-sentence paragraph that still works well as a transition, it's gone.

Letting go – just tossing something that isn't working, and that is slowly dragging down everything else around it – is scary, but it can also be incomparably liberating. Here's a story: When I was writing my dissertation, one of the things I decided right off was that I needed to understand some background stuff. So for two or three months, I read boring books and articles on this background. Then I wrote a forty-five-page chapter. The months went by, and I wrote two more chapters. But as I wrote, I started to realize that something was wrong. Sadly, I knew what it was: large portions of chapter one, product of so much long (and frankly very dull) labor were blocking the project as a whole. I had learned something in writing it, but it didn't play nicely with everything else, and did little or nothing to move the argument forward. In fact, it acted as a red herring, distracting my hypothetical readers from where I'd decided I wanted to take them.

So, after much agonizing, and weighing the work I'd put in against the knowledge that it just wasn't going to work out, I deleted two dozen pages from chapter one of my dissertation. It hurt, but it was followed by a feeling of lightness and freedom, and a clear sense of the path forward.

So yes: 2,000-plus words gone.** Just an hour ago. But I know it's for the best.

**Okay, technically not really "gone" – I have an entire folder on my hard drive labled "orphaned sections," in the hopes that someday the work will find a home.


Anonymous said...

My undergrad creative writing professor called this "murdering your babies," that is, you had to be willing to murder your babies, those things you loved but that really didn't contribute to the story as a whole. I doubt most academics love their prose as much as in the creative writing context, but oh, the work that went into it! So, yeah, it's a good thing (and I keep all those things, too! Actually, while I'm still drafting they tend to go to the foot of the paper just in case I need them - hope springs eternal!).

I told students the "murder your babies" thing once and they found it absolutely hysterical, I have no idea why.

Anyway, congrats on the progress!

Anonymous said...

I spent this whole post thinking "You didn't really *delete* it!" in horror.

I have a lot of files labeled "cut from chapter 6 version 5", rather than an orphans folder.

Belle said...

If we all gathered our 'murdered babies' together, would it make a bizarre anthology or what?

Like you, I did the whole research/write thing for 50 pages. It clarified my thinking, but it's sitting somewhere on a disk (yeah, 3/5" floppy) and I've never used it. Or even found a way to use it. But what I got from it? Use it all the time.

Dr. S said...

I keep an outtakes file for almost everything I write, just to keep it possible to move on. I almost never bring things back from the outtakes, but I also almost never delete those files. I'm also a big fan of creating a new copy of a file just so that I can hack away more freely at whatever I'm writing, knowing that I've still preserved the structure, &c., of the stage just before the hacking.

I've never really thought about it as murdering my babies, though I've often worried over whether my writings have more limbs and heads than they should...

Notorious Ph.D. said...

"Murdering your babies" is good. In fact, if I like something a great deal, chances are it's overwritten, and it needs to go.

But I do like my orphans. And since so many of us have these, maybe we should take Belle's suggestion and just cobble them all together for one big, weird paper? Most recently, I've got children and work, and Muslim women in Christian criminal courts. What have you all got?

Dr. S said...

I've got Virginia Woolf on biography and some miscellaneous thoughts on privacy and struggles against death. That's just in the most recent file...

meli said...

I've got some nice stuff about glass and invisible cathedrals in Australian literature.

Susan said...

Oh, one of my favorite "dump" files I called "dump men", with lots of interesting stuff on men in early modern England. I'm sure there is some way of connecting that to Muslim women in Christian criminal courts. Or maybe children.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

You guys are fantastic. I think we have a paper here:

1. Muslim women in medieval Christian legal courts;

2. Struggles against death;

3. Invisible cathedrals;

4. Early Modern English men.

Now we need a suitably obfuscatory title.