Unpenned: Turning the Novel Loose

cat“There comes a time when you have to let the novel go.” “It will never be perfect.” “You can’t fiddle with it forever.” Yadda, yadda. So goes the writing advice about when to finally set a novel free in the harsh world of agents and editors. As the deadline nears, I’ve heard of people baking fifty dozen cookies. Or drinking copious amounts of Prosecco. Me? I sew. I know, how terribly un-literary of me. But it was springtime and the characters in my novel were spinning around my head, embarrassing themselves with their still-too-clunky machinations when I clicked on a fashion site and saw that magical word: culottes. Is there a more beautiful word in the fashion lexicon? No. Culottes, with their promise of the skirt’s breeziness combined with a pant’s practicality. No matter that I had promised to send my book out in thirty days, it was time my two little girls discovered the joys of this fashion chameleon.

We went to the fabric store. The eight-year old picked out a blue mod floral, the two-year old, a multi-colored triangle print, both from the expensive Japanese cotton aisle. Money be damned, however, their first culottes deserved to be special.

Back home, the fabrics lay on my cutting table while I butchered chapter one—yet again. I re-read the comments from my last outside reader as I sized the patterns. Holding up the preposterously small leg of a size 2 culotte, I decided to get rid of that cop. Yes, it was late in the game for killing off characters, but in the back of my mind, I still feared I had too many. And so, sew, it went. I put in hard, perfect pleats. I finished the seams. I hand stitched the hems. I fussed. Over both the culottes and the novel but only one of my projects could be held up as pure perfection.

I debated keeping the book until the fall. Maybe it needed another full cutting. It had undoubtedly been a hard year in the novel incubator, perhaps the novel needed to sit until I could see it with fresh eyes. Fellow incubees looked at me askance. They knew—as did I—that the book was as ready as it was going to get. At least for now. I was the one who wasn’t prepared for the inevitable rejection. I wasn’t distant enough to let that armor clink down around me such that the novel wasn’t part of me, but merely something I created.

There’s advice all around us about letting it go. There are visualization exercises and meditations. My yoga teacher tells my hips this every damn day, to no avail. Your barista knows about it from his last relationship. Disney made a fortune from a song about it. (Yes, you’re welcome, it’s now stuck in your head too.) None of it compares to my grandmother’s thoughts on the matter. She was hand embroidering tea towels, a task my teenage self found ridiculous. I asked why she would put that much time into something that would be smeared across a stovetop. She looked up and said, “If you want to make something, don’t do it because people will admire it. God gave me these hands to enjoy sewing this towel, he didn’t give them to me so I can hang onto it forever.”

I finished the culottes late at night. We had a garden party to attend the next day, what better opportunity for culottes? I hung them on my elder daughter’s closet door, my expectation clear. Five minutes before we needed to leave, here she came, wearing a worn-out discount store dress. The culottes were too fluffy around the waist. The baby was more succinct. When I tried sliding the culottes over her freshly diapered tush, she screamed “No culottes!” and threw them on the floor. There were my creations, out in the world, getting crapped on.

I crafted the emails, attached the novel. I waited overnight. I reread my letters and then I hit send. It’s out there, somewhere, completely out of my control.

6 comments

  1. Daniel Medwed

    Fantastic commentary Sharissa! I write non-fiction/academic pieces and this essay applies to those works too. Thanks.

  2. Lisa Birk

    Oh, love this! Love it as much for parenting wisdom as for writing wisdom as for sewing wisdom. And maybe most of all this: “God gave me these hands to enjoy sewing this towel, he didn’t give them to me so I can hang onto it forever.”

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