Photo by Alissa McElreath
Three weeks ago I stood in a grassy field in Bunn, NC, and wondered – not for the first time since September – how it could be that I was so impossibly far away from my sixteen-year old son. Oh, I could see him: a dark cross moving slowly across a backdrop of fluffy white, but he was some 3,000 feet above me, gliding soundlessly, on his first solo flight.
Solo. Alone. Just a boy and an airplane, the way he must have dreamed it a thousand times over from the day he could first hold a toy plane in his hands and zoom it through the air. He’s worked so hard since he started soaring lessons this past fall. I’ve had ten months to get used to the sight of him in the sky. The first time he flew with an instructor I felt my stomach drop away in a sliding lurch as they took off in tandem with the prop plane. At 3,000 feet the tether was released, and there they were: gliding in graceful loops above me and there was simply nothing I could do.
Standing in that field on that important, incredible, milestone afternoon, I could have burst open with a mixture of pride, terror, and, once he was safely on the ground again (textbook-perfect landing!), an outpouring of relief, but I didn’t. Most amazing of all to me at that moment was not that he had survived this incredible achievement because of course he had done so remarkably well, but that I had. This whole journey, from that first flight to the day I watched my son fly solo, has been one long and obvious metaphor for the process of letting go. It shouldn’t have been much of a revelation to me that day in the field, but it was.
Parents, of course, are very familiar with the bittersweet piling up of milestone after milestone after milestone – familiar with the lump-in-throat choking back of emotions that follows the first steps, the first lost tooth, the first day at school, the first broken heart, the first job, the first driver’s license, the first metaphorical, or literal, spreading of the wings. Writers are also very familiar with the process of letting go – we have to be, or we won’t survive very long. As a teacher, I have to help my creative writing students understand that if they want to succeed, whatever success as a writer inside or outside of the classroom looks like to them, a big part of the journey is about letting go. They may have to steel their hearts and cut loose a beloved character, or passage, or shiny sentence (my students always love it when I pull out the “kill your darlings” quote). They might have to delete pages and chapters, and save certain ideas for some uncertain future time. When they are more confident writers they may send their work out into the big, wide, world but then they will have to let it go, for obsessing about it will drive them mad.
I tell them that sometimes moving forward as a writer can mean letting go of the dream you have for one story, or book, or poem in order to allow another to take root and grow. But I wrestle with this advice even as I give it, because letting go of a dream – even if to allow for room for another – seems fundamentally wrong. If we let go, don’t we risk losing what we need and want the most for our hard work? Yet, it makes sense that we have to let go in order to move forward – if we spend too much time mired stubbornly in any one particular version of our dream, anchored to one spot on the ground, turning around and around in circles, we risk going nowhere.
There was a time this fall when I was ready to chuck it all in – this writing business, that is. I am only now beginning to emerge from a sort of delayed onset mourning over the shelving of my latest book. After acquiring an agent, after two rounds on submission, an almost-offer, a handful of near-misses, I had to let it go, as so many other writers have had to do with their own work. I thought I had handled it all quite well– deluded self-preservation, maybe? The loss suddenly became raw this past year, in ways it hadn’t been initially. Up until very recently I was wallowing in that self-pitying phase of the process that I suspect many writers know well – the one where we hunker down miserably, and declare that we are done with pouring our hearts into stories that no one will read. The one where we want throw away the bits and pieces of writing begun and abandoned, and select and delete the files on our computers (I may or may not know anything about this, mind you) that make up the digital roadmap of a journey to nowhere. I didn’t want to set aside that book. Shelving it felt like beginning again, except several steps back from the place where it had all begun. Somehow, I had become too focused on the outcome and not on what I had learned along the way. I thought about this after asking my son what the best part of flying solo had been for him. He shrugged. Being able to do it, he told me. Using all the stuff I know. Being capable, qualified, and confident, and putting the work and courage and persistence into doing what he loved to do the best. For me, being able to write means I must move past the what could have beens and should have beens and focus on using the stuff I know in order to do what I love the best.
As it turns out, you can let go of things – and people, too – and have them return to you again. You can let go of one dream to make room for a bigger one. You can let go of years of hard work on a favorite book, but know that its spirit is housed in another one just emerging. You can even send your heart some 3,000 feet up into the air and watch it glide effortlessly into view, closer and closer – first a small, impossible shape, until there it is, come back to you again.