Abraham Lincoln provided the title of this post. The context is this:
His Secretary of Treasury said: “Oh, I am so sorry that I did not write a letter to Mr. So-and-so before I left home!” Lincoln responded: “Chase, never regret what you don’t write; it is what you do write that you are often called upon to feel sorry for.”
Yep. His Secretary of Treasury was named Salmon P. Chase. How’s that for a coincidence?
We all have regrets, right? As a human, I have many regrets. As a writer, I have millions. Why did I use that word? Why did I cut that scene? Why did I include that scene? Why did I have the character do that? Why didn’t I include this? On and on ad infinitum until I just want to whack myself in the head with a hammer so that I can think about something else for once.
Regret is compounded by the fact that you can never really fix a story. Once it’s published, it is what it is. Sure, you can make a new file, include or remove stuff, and upload a new file so that the next reader will get the story as you really wanted it to be. But it’s not the same story anymore is it? Furthermore, a creative could drive themselves absolutely bonkers this way because you’ll eventually realize that you’ll never be completely happy with your story. It doesn’t matter how many files you change and upload.
There are many things I regret each day as a writer, but most of them are fixable things. I’m working to show more and not tell as much. I’m working on grammar, spelling, punctuation, descriptive passages, passive vs. active voice (though PASSIVE HAS ITS PLACE), and learning to self-edit a bit as I write. I’m working on learning that not every piece of dialogue has to have dialogue tags, especially those with adverbs (though ADVERBS HAVE THEIR PLACE). I’m working hard to trust others in the industry more–especially those who are invested in my success and betterment. I’m trying to get better at giving critiques when they are asked for by others. I’m trying to get better at not putting up walls around myself and sequestering myself from others who just want to get to know me and share knowledge about the industry.
I have trust issues. What can I say?
But…those are all things I can work on, right? Do you want to know my biggest regret about one of my books that absolutely gutted me for the longest time?
In my book A SURPLUS OF LIGHT, there wasn’t a scene involving Independence Day. The book flat out celebrates Americana as seen through the lens of two gay teens growing up in Texas, coming-of-age, and coming out. AND THE BULK OF THE STORY TAKES PLACE OVER THE COURSE OF FIVE SUMMERS! I had 5 whole opportunities to have an Independence Day scene! ARGH!
At least once a day since A SURPLUS OF LIGHT was released on September 6th, 2018, I’ve mentally beat myself up over missing a prime opportunity. That’s 537 days, people. Mike, Ian, fireworks? That would have been an amazing scene. Or scenes. Five summers, after all…
Over those 537 days of calling myself all kinds of names, I’ve perfectly crafted what I thought that scene would look like in the book. What would have happened. The sights, sounds, smells–all of the sensory experiences I would have injected into the scene. And I think fans of the book would have absolutely adored it. I’ve even toyed with the idea of writing a “bonus scene” and adding it to a “deluxe” edition or something, but I’ve always stopped myself.
Well, the book is done. It is what it is. If I let myself go down that path of constantly fixing and adding to work (I call it “George Lucasing”), I would never be done. The paperback is a tight 159 pages. In my opinion, I told the story the way it was supposed to be told. No fat, nothing extra, just the story of two boys, their summers of friendship and love…and now it belongs to the universe. To change it would be to dishonor it. Would adding an Independence Day scene make it closer to perfect? Probably not. Would readers enjoy it? Maybe. Would it make me think that there was nothing else about the book I could make better? Definitely not.
At some point, all of us creatives have to send our art out to live its life. We can’t keep tweaking and “fixing” it. To be honest, I never knew that ASoL was going to end up being one of my most loved pieces of work. I thought it was just a sweet, touching story about two boys who find their person on the banks of a creek in Texas over the summers of their high school careers. To know that so many people have connected with the story and enjoyed reading it amazes me, but makes me so happy.
For them, I will never change ASoL. I don’t want to take something that so many people have connected with emotionally and say: “But it’s not good enough.” Obviously, it was good enough. And I have to respect that.
Besides, now I have a fully crafted Independence Day scene that I can use in any future book of my choosing, right? It won’t be Ian and Mike that readers see in the scene, but they can still experience it through the lens of a new story. That will just have to be good enough.
Furthermore, as Lincoln pointed out, what you don’t write can’t get you into trouble. Maybe the Independence Day scene would have ruined the whole book. I never have to worry about finding out if that’s true, do I?
Tremendous Love & Thanks,
One thought on “Never Regret What You Don’t Write”
I hope day 538 can be regret-free. Of this regret, anyway.
(As a non-American, of course, I didn’t notice the omission until you started mentioning it. And it spoke to me as “universal summer” the way it is. Somehow fireworks and marching bands or what have you seems too extra for Ian and Mike, lol).
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