Thursday, May 12, 2011

Keeping and Letting Go

We’re getting ready to move again—no, not from Portland (we just got here, practically!), just from our itty-bitty downtown condo to a sweet, little (but a little big bigger) house across the river, in a neighborhood of antique stores, coffee shops, and a very lively branch of the Multnomah County Library. (Every time I go by, the place is hopping.)

We’re doing all those little repairs that one never seems to get around to for oneself (as in sheesh, why didn’t we fix that while we were living here to enjoy it???); we’re collecting boxes; the movers are scheduled.

Even though we culled through our belongings 1½ years ago, when we first moved from California to Oregon, and got rid of tons, I am still looking around now to see what we are holding onto that we really don’t want/need anymore.

Some stuff is easy to get rid of. A book I read and don’t plan to read again? Sure, no problem. Off it goes to the Friends of the Library booksale. Other stuff is harder to let go of, however: a gorgeous sweater that I have only worn a few times because it is too fussy to clean easily? Hmmm. I think it will be making the move with me.

Trying to decide what to get rid of and what to hang onto has even leaked into my writing life—literally. I have multiple files of partially-explored book ideas. And I’ve been going through them all, asking myself: keep or let go?

It’s been interesting to look back over these ideas, some that were generated over fifteen years ago, at the start of my career. I can recall the enthusiasm with which I dove right in, reading and collecting information. But for each of these projects, at some point, I hit a roadblock. And I set the idea aside, to think. And then didn’t pick it back up. These are the ideas that have accumulated in my drawer full of files.

The roadblock, in most cases, is whether the idea works as a picture book—the genre I’ve been exploring for most of my writing career.

For some ideas in my files, I’ve come to understand, there’s not enough there there to warrant a 32-page book. These ideas could successfully be turned into nonfiction articles, however, which often run as tight as 400 words and are enhanced by perhaps two or three illustrations.

Conversely, for other ideas in my files, I now see that there is too much there to cram into a picture book. These topics are too complex, too nuanced, too layered to be told in a 32-page illustrated book. And, most likely, they are not ideas that would interest the six-year-old who would pick the book up. These ideas would be better served in a middle-grade or young-adult nonfiction format, with multiple chapters to explore the idea in depth.

And finally, even for the ideas with just the right amount of there, there is still the issue of illustration potential. The lovely beginning-middle-end structure that works so well for the picture book format still needs a story that can be enhanced by a variety of compelling visual images—and for some of my fledgling ideas, that variety it lacking. They may be stories that could be told, but not necessarily stories that can truly be illustrated.

A drawer full of stalled ideas might seem like a failure of sorts, but I see it as an accomplishment. By exploring these ideas and trying to write them as picture books, I’ve learned a lot about what works for that genre, and what doesn’t. Learning how a dozen (or more!) ideas don’t work has helped me shape the ones that do.

So what am I keeping? The ideas that, after all these years, still speak to me. I do write articles on occasion, so the modest ones may still find a home; and I might one day decide to tackle a longer work.

And what am I letting go? The ideas for which I no longer have any passion. They deserve—and will be better served—by authors who do. And letting them go allows me to move, focused and energized, into my new office—looking full-steam ahead.

1 comment:

Deborah Heiligman said...

I have to warn you, but I know it's too late: that book you read and know you're not going to want to read again--you are going to need that book in about five and a half years... and you are going to spend days looking for it only for your spouse to say, "That one didn't make the cut." Luckily, you have a library right nearby. If I lived nearby I'd bring you bread and salt and something sweet. And a new book.