Loving Our Work and Letting it Go

One morning many years ago, I phoned a writer friend and asked if she would take a look at a manuscript I’d recently completed, one that I was particularly fond of. I guess you could call it a crush. Yes, I had a crush on my manuscript. (If you’re a writer, you probably know how this feels—the initial surge of passion, however incestuous, for your own work.) It’s a great feeling, but it passes. Especially after, say, three revisions, which is what the manuscript had survived. My friend is a tough but fair critic, and I knew she would give me an honest assessment. “Sure,” she said. “But I’ll be gone most of the day. Just drop it through the mail slot.”

Within an hour, I’d arrived at her front porch. As I lifted the lid on the mail slot and started to slide the envelope through, I heard a deep growl, then another, and felt something grab the other end of the envelope. Instinctively I grabbed back, setting into motion a back-and-forth, territorial tussle that lasted for several seconds, until a bark from the other side of the door brought me back to what was left of my senses. Of course—my friend’s dog! I let go, the manuscript was yanked through the slot, and suddenly everything was quiet except for the faint click-click of the dog’s nails as he retreated down the hall.

Nearly three decades later, that response remains the swiftest—and definitely most passionate—response to a manuscript that I’ve ever received. Never had a reader or editor been more eager for my work! And though the manuscript was destined never to see the literary light of day (it was too deeply flawed) I still hold great affection for the unpublished work and continue to believe that the teeth marks and the muddy pawprints were signs of unabashed acceptance. I like to imagine the dog carrying the manuscript, in his expectant, drooling mouth, to his plaid bed, where he curls up beside it, paws it adoringly, and proceeds to lose himself in a doggy version of John Gardner’s “fictional dream.”

Such are the kinds of fantasies I conjure to keep up my writer’s spirits on days when (let’s just say) another manuscript is returned from yet another editor. For we writers must keep our spirits up—it is our responsibility to ourselves and to our work. We are, after all, our own first responders. If we don’t continue to believe in our work and to accept it, who will?

Truth be told, I have enjoyed my share of acceptances. Perhaps more than my share. But, like most writers who are in it for the long haul, I’ve also had plenty of experience with what we typically name “rejection.” (More on that word later.) Rejection hurts. It can make you do strange things, things that under normal situations you would never do. Scream. Slam doors. Sob. Shake your fist at the ceiling. Gather all the profanities you’ve been saving and aim them at the editor, the journal, the agent, the publisher. (And these are the more healthy reactions.) On really bad days, you may curse your work, compare it to the work of others, swear to never write again—I mean, who needs this kind of pain, right?

That is what rejection can do to you. Which is why, several years ago, I decided to reject “rejection.” The word felt too personal, smacking of love affairs gone wrong, Dear Jane letters, the perennial cold shoulder. Why not rename it? (We are writers, after all. Naming is our thing.) So I pulled out my folder marked “Rejections” and marked through the word. Then, in bright green marker, I wrote “Free to send out again.” I can’t tell you how good this change felt, and continues to feel, each time a manuscript is declined. The work is free! The editor has released it from bondage. “Thank God you’re home,” I think. “I’ve missed you.”

The feeling doesn’t last long. Just long enough to send me back to the desk, either to re-see, re-feel, and re-think the piece or to decide to send it back out into the world. Here is where I always hesitate, imagining the worst possible scenario. Who knows what force awaits (growling) behind the mail slot or the internet portal, or into whose rough paws my offering will fall? As Eudora Welty noted, once a piece of writing leaves our hands it becomes, like a mailed letter, closer in distance to its recipient than to its sender.

Eudora was right, of course. As long as we hold our work close and refuse to let it go, it remains safely in our control. But once we release it, it no longer belongs solely to us. Our beloved object is now, literally, out of our hands; I guess that’s why we call it “submitting.” We yield whatever power we have to someone or something else. Like writing, submitting is a form of surrender. We hit the “send” button and the reply comes back: “We have received your submission.” If that doesn’t make you cower in humility, you are a stronger person than I am.

“Parting from a work of art is a skill,” wrote Anne Truitt in Prospect: The Journal of an Artist. A skill? Perhaps. But maybe it is more than that. Maybe parting from our work is an art in itself, as necessary to our creative process as the drafting, imagining, revising, and reimagining. At some point, we must separate ourselves from the work and let it go its own way. If we don’t, if we hang on too tightly, we won’t be free to write the next piece, and the next, and the next. And isn’t that what we all want?

Rebecca McClanahan

Rebecca McClanahan is the author of ten books, most recently The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change and a revised edition of Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively, which has sold over 40,000 copies and is used as a text in many writing programs. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, Georgia Review, Boulevard, The Sun, and in anthologies published by Doubleday, Norton, Putnam, Penguin, Beacon, St. Martin’s, and numerous other publishers. Her new book, In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays, is forthcoming in 2020.

Recipient of the Wood Prize from Poetry, a Pushcart Prize, and the Glasgow Award in nonfiction for The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, she has also been awarded a N.C. Governor’s Award for Excellence in Education, a MacDowell Colony fellowship, and four literary fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, among other honors and awards.

McClanahan lives in Charlotte, N.C. with her husband, video producer Donald Devet. She teaches poetry and creative nonfiction in our low-residency master of fine arts in creative writing program.

Contributions by Rebecca McClanahan