Recently, we’ve had blue skies and sun with gusts of cold wind in Portland. On one of those days, I arrived a little early to meet a friend at a Townshend’s Tea, and because the tiny shop was packed, I decided to wait outside.
I plunked down my spiral-bound notebook on the picnic table, sat on the bench, folded my hands into my pockets, and enjoyed the sun in spite of the wind. It’s mid-November, so you make the most of what you get when you live in Portland. And, between gusts, it felt almost warm.
All of a sudden, I heard a snapping sound and turned just in time to see bright white, hear more snapping, and notice specks of black. This spectacle arced over my head and spiraled down Division Street. Beautiful, I thought. And then I realized what it was …
I’ve been working on an essay, off-and-on, for at least three years, and I simply cannot find the focal point. The essay just keeps swirling and expanding, repeating and then contracting. My latest effort to complete the essay involved printing all 20 pages and 8,780 words, cutting it up into individual sentences, tossing at least half of the sentence strips, then re-grouping what was left and taping them into a new order. This resulted in two more enthusiastic introductions, both five paragraphs long, both ending in broad territory rather than leading me to my point.
That is what snapped and fluttered over my head and down the sidewalk: my essay.
I’d had the taped version tucked into the front of my notebook, and while the notebook was heavy enough to stay on the table, the muscular wind flipped the cover open and snatched my essay. It lifted the pieces and parts into the air, let them sift to the sidewalk, then lifted them again as each page followed the other in pretty white arcs and twists.
I watched the papers swirl, the sun refracting off the white corners. I stayed seated at the picnic table, content to let the pages go. Relieved even. I had my answer: give up, let it go.
The only reason I got up and chased each page down, anchoring some with my shoe, snatching others pressed against news boxes, was the thought of littering. I couldn’t let all that recyclable paper end up in the trash or caught up in tree branches with lost balloons and plastic grocery bags.
I folded the tattered mess in half, stuck it back into my notebook, and rested my elbow on the cover to anchor it down.
And now it sits on my desk, still folded, still tattered. Do I unfold it and hope the wind put it in the right order? Do I let it go? I’m tempted to let it go: delete the file and recycle the fluttered pages, leaving nothing but a blank slate. A blank slate to try again with a fresh start? Or room for new ideas, new essays?
How do you know when it’s time to give up on something? Not in defeat, but with the realization you’ve tried and tried and enough is enough?
Some tiny thread still attaches me to this essay. I feel it extending from my chest to the folded clump on the desk.
In a way, watching the pages whisk away from me felt like publishing — or at least how I’d like publishing to feel: the story is finished and eager to go out into the world to find its audience. Once a story has a reader, it doesn’t need the writer anymore. That was the kind of relief I felt–the piece had moved on; it was on its way to where it belonged and no longer needed me.
Maybe I should have let the pages continue down the sidewalk. Maybe each page or strip of sentence would have found the reader it was meant to find, like fortune-cookie fortunes.
Maybe I should have let it go.