The Productivity of Letting Go

by Carol Coven Grannick

April 2015 

The day I stopped caring whether or not I ever got a book contract was the day I began to be the writer I wanted to be.

I’d had sporadic publications of poetry, articles, and essays, but began writing for children consistently in 1999. I’d fallen in love with picture books and middle grade novels, and my first story was accepted immediately for publication. I worked hard and hoped for the next. I had no knowledge of the business when I began, but set about to learn. I knew that the advice on the street was to “keep your head down and do the work,” to think about submission and publication only when the work was polished. I knew it was “the journey that counts”, but it sure felt great to have that first story snapped up right away.

Not only that, but publication was an integral part of every discussion, workshop, conference, and listserve, and it was impossible not to write in tandem with the pull of it. What was a writer, after all, without his or her words reaching others? I didn’t question it. As I polished works, I began submitting, waiting, recovering fairly quickly from rejections, and then repeating the process. I began to receive an occasional encouraging personal responses, some requests for more work, and gradually, requests for revisions.

I wrote tender, funny, or lyrical first drafts of middle grade fiction and picture books that had heart, but needed lots of work. As a new writer for children, I felt that I knew nothing and everyone else knew more, so I took every suggestion I was given, and too often end up with manuscripts I didn’t quite recognize. I saw improvements, but I didn’t always see me. I grew increasingly frustrated with the inability to sort out conflicting critique and felt alienated from some of my work.

Still, with every rejection feeling closer to a contract, colleagues cheered me on with their belief that echoed my hopes that a book deal was just around the corner. I kept on working.

Then the market began to change, and an increasing number of agents and publishing companies adopted submission policies that read, If you don’t hear from us, assume we’re not interested. Some didn’t even include time limits, and I wondered, If I don’t hear from you by when? Four months? A year? By the time I’m eighty? Well-published authors I met at workshops or school visits shared similar experiences. They were signing with agents after years of submitting directly to a single editor, and those who had agents were not selling as quickly, or sometimes at all.

For me, the absence of any response triggered historical family pain, and pushed my emotional resilience to its limits. I found myself wishing for the days of actual rejections, no matter how impersonal. Sending work into what felt like a bottomless pit drained and distracted me, affecting energy, productivity, and creativity. For the first time, I began to feel deeply discouraged.

Quitting was never on the table, and I wasn’t ready to consider self-publication. But I had to change something, so I pulled a favorite problem-solving method out of my writer/psychotherapist toolbox, one of Edward de Bono’s “provocation” techniques from his books, Lateral Thinking and Serious Creativity. This particular technique asks you to negate a basic assumption that no longer creates the results you want, in order to provoke creative problem-solving. In my case, the basic assumption was that I’d eventually get a book contract if I continued my hard work. So I negated that belief and told myself, I will never get a book contract. Whether or not that would always be true, I needed to make it true for the present. And it wasn’t a mind-game; it felt quite real.

The thought was initially devastating, and I sobbed – but only for a few minutes. The follow-up questions – Then what? What if I never get a book contract? – had easy answers. Then, I’m a writer. Then, I keep writing.

Relief gushed through me.

Moments after the external pressure disappeared, I experienced complete freedom to write anything and everything I loved – picture books, middle grade, poetry, essays. Joy infused my writing time. I stopped spending what little discretionary money I had on conferences where the desire for publication was always in the air, and opted instead for more intimate craft workshops and critique, in person and online, with authors I admired. It felt right to focus on deepening and polishing my work only because it was important to me to make that happen. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I wrote because it has always been important to me, necessary for me, to write. I wanted to be proud of myself, and my work.

My writing time became delicious. The absence of the question “Will I ever get a book contract, let alone be published again anywhere?” was almost palpable. It was like running without a finish line for the pure strength and exhilaration, dancing for the passion of it with no audience. Gradually I found I trusted myself and my growing knowledge, and could sort through critique to decide what worked best for the story I wanted to tell. I discovered the ability to revise vigorously and dispassionately to clear out distractions and help my stories shine.

I tracked my progress with a blog for myself, Today I Am a Writer, that garnered more followers than I’d ever had when I’d blogged earlier and focused on SEO.

After a year or so, I began to submit work again, and I continue to submit frequently, sometimes daily when the work is there. My queries are professional, but significantly more relaxed and true to my own voice. I feel like a peer, rather than an unknowing child appealing to the grownups. And I began to receive responses, some simple form rejections, others personal notes with requests for more work, and more acceptances than I’ve had in years.

It feels like magic, but of course it isn’t. The brain is an amazing organ, and mine had been learning and practicing for many years. It simply needed freedom in order to flourish.

I don’t doubt that many writers are able to focus on the creative work without setting aside the longing for publication. But I couldn’t. I had to let it go to bring it back in a non-intrusive way. And the journey I took to discover how to do it better was the best of my writing life – so far.

Carol Coven Grannick is a children’s author, poet, and essayist, who writes for several hours a day in the early morning before she heads to work at an amazing early childhood center where ideas for poetry and picture books flow freely. Her middle grade novel in verse, Reeni’s Turn, was a finalist for the 2014 Katherine Paterson/Hunger Mountain award, and will be excerpted in the Spring/Summer edition of Hunger Mountain. She has published poetry, fiction, and essays in and on multiple venues, including Cricket, Highlights, Ladybug, Chicago Public Radio, North Suburban Chicago buses, and more. Her as-yet unpublished picture book texts have won several awards, and as a writer/psychotherapist, she pens a regular column, “The Flourishing Writer”, for the Illinois-SCBWI Prairie Wind.