Letting go was my first book. I’d begun my writing with a vague sense that I wanted to say something, right some wrong in the area of personal change or organisational improvement. In several years of early work predating Letting go, I’d attempted to write a ‘How to’ book.
To be fair, even at that stage it was a little more subtle than that. It was rather more a ‘Have you noticed that when you try to do that thing over there, this happens over here…’ sort of book, but that’s not nearly snappy enough.
To cut a long story short, I’d quite naturally been trying to write a book of answers, for a world that wanted to find them. In many months and years of failing to complete the book I eventually made the discovery that people craved answers, and rather than feeding this craving with a ‘How To’ book, the craving was actually the problem to be addressed.
Arriving at this conclusion took several years and perhaps I’d resisted the conclusion for some time as it leads to a difficult place for the writer. In a world that craves answers, how do you say ‘there are no answers’ without it being taken as an answer? And how do you write the book that you believe people need to read, whilst knowing that it’s not the book they want to read.
This conundrum is at the heart of all of my writing to date. ‘Letting Go’ was my first writing to explore the idea of using a story. Simple though this will seem, this was a significant departure for me at the time. An engineer by background and education, facts and the persuasive arguments of data and proof were the stock-in-trade of a trained answer provider. You see, my discovery was no less uncomfortable for me, than it would be for the reader. As my exploration of writing began, it seemed that presenting ideas through a story offered the opportunity to invite the reader to occupy a space and look at their own thoughts, rather than be persuaded, or otherwise, by mine.
I encountered the double edged sword of the blank page. It’s an incredibly intimidating thing, staring up at you from the desk, or whispering in your ear as you take a walk because you can’t bring yourself to sit at the desk. It took a while to realise and become comfortable with the fact that the blank sheet of paper also means you can create anything, go anywhere, be anyone. Of course even when you realise this, you are constrained by all sorts of thoughts of what it is possible, or otherwise, for you to do. But these constraints are inside you, not the piece of paper, and pushing them back, is one of the rewards for putting your words out there.
I wrote a note to myself about this transition from ‘Oh god! A blank sheet of paper’ to Oh good! ‘A blank sheet of paper’ and at the time thought I’d been pretty smart.
The great thing about a story is that you don’t have to say everything, although my engineer training still wanted me to. In a story you can leave space for the reader to join the dots and create their own pictures. As these pictures belong to the reader, they’re going to be much more powerful than any pictures I can paint, however meticulously I paint them.
I remember hearing a pop song that had very few words and told the story of seeing someone across a crowded room, and never getting to meet then or talk to them. The song probably had no more than 50 words in it, but it evoked all the feelings of missed opportunities and might have been’s that anyone listening to it would have experienced, all in their own unique ways. I try to think of that song when the engineer in me wants to fill in the detail.
I was learning about this space between things and applying it through the talks I gave, but capturing it in words would be more of a challenge.
In a talk, you are there interacting with an audience. You pick up the signals to move on, or to slow down and retrace your steps, add another illustration, or skip a point that clearly already been taken. A book is quite different. There is no feedback, certainly not interactively with the book’s creation. There’s nothing with which to gauge reaction, other than you own feelings, and these are really unreliable. At best I’d have to leave the writing for a couple of months to lose touch with being the writer, so I could become the reader. After only a few days back working on the book, I’d become the writer again and the need for another cycle of the process would add a further couple of months to the task.
Of course you can get some feedback from people graciously offering to read drafts, but as an engineer, much of the writing at this time was under a self-imposed cloak of secrecy. It would be quite some time before I would out-myself and openly talk of spending my time writing and much, much later before I dare attach the appellation ‘writer’, however flippantly to my thumbnail of myself.
Incidentally I’m reminded of a quotation from Ernest Hemmingway who really knew about writing a good story, ‘The first draft of anything is shit.” So thank you to everyone who has offered to read draft work.
The characters of the story, Donkey, Beetle and Cat had previously emerged, and been submerged amongst the mass of fact driven and unpublished writing of the previous few years. They were minor thumbnails of different attitude towards change, that I’d sketched in the margins of a weighty argument. In ‘Letting Go’ I found these characters coming to the fore, each a metaphor for different approaches I’d met.
Donkey represents those who have little time for theory and philosophy. He’s unlikely to ever consider the topic of change unless prompted, and when prompted is quick to reply that he knows all there is to know about the real business-end of what change means. After all, each and every day is different for him. He’s always carrying something different.
Beetle on the other hand has studied his subject and change, rather than a means to an end, has become his preoccupation. Watch Beetle as he relentlessly scans his surroundings, seeing, smelling and continuously touching to check and recheck the exact status and you are left in little doubt that dealing with change has become his role in life.
At first glance it’s difficult to see Cat as an advance on Beetle. As he stretches out under a bush snoozing or taking in the sun, the untrained eye would see this as a retrograde step. Clearly, or so it seems, Cat has become oblivious to his surroundings, unaware of what’s going on, and ill prepared to notice the warning signs of a threatening danger. However nothing could be further from the truth. Beyond Beetle’s preoccupation with the ‘doing’ of change, there is a state of ‘being’ change.
For Cat, the need to deal with change is no longer a bolted on action list, it has become suffused into his every thought and action. Cat carries the spirit of change so effectively, that should you move a thread of string in front of him, he moves so quickly that you can’t really be sure whether he moved because the string moved, or because he knew it was about to.
I liked using the three characters, in part because they drew to mind different approaches, but also because they became the voices I was able to speak through. At this early stage of writing it felt important for me to not hear my own voice through the book, in the hope that the reader wouldn’t hear it either. If they’d heard me, they might easily take the words for answers, but I hoped that no one would take answers from a Donkey, Beetle or Cat.
In the introduction to the book I get a little carried away, describing some of the background to how the book was created, the process of conversion of an answer providing engineer, and also some thoughts on the nature of the need to speak to the intuitive right brain, rather than solely to the logical left. I was sharing thoughts of the discoveries I was making through writing the book.
I’ve spoken about wanting the reader to create their own pictures and the final part of the books design was again intended to help this. I wrote the book with wide margins in the hope that the reader might need somewhere to capture their thoughts. In these margins, throughout the book I added a collection of quotations that were meant as signposts away from the book. Each reflected an idea and was positioned to support the idea within the story, but offered the opportunity for the reader to put down the book and follow their own thought process.
It might seem strange to create a book that invites the reader to put it down. ‘I loved the book so much, I couldn’t pick it up’ sounds a little too much like an Amazon review from Groucho Marx, after all. What I’d begun to discover however, was that it was the space between the words that was at last as important as the words themselves.