Photo by Maddie Cohen

I was about to send off what was to be the final draft of my first book to my agent when I had the heart-stopping thought, what if I rewrote the book again? How much better could it be?

The thought made me go so weak in the knees, I had to sit down.

My writing studio sits on the second floor of a building in the woods with windows on all four sides. In my reading chair next to a window, I sat at branch-level with the trees. It was fall, and the paper birch outside my window was releasing its leaves.

No other tree was dropping its leaves.

It wasn’t a windy day—there were no storms brewing or clouds scudding; the air was perfectly still. The woods were approaching peak fall color, and I didn’t know why this particular tree was choosing now to release its leaves.

The leaves cascaded by the hundreds, whispering as they fell. I thought about the hundreds of pages of failed drafts and the many times I’d already rewritten this book. I wasn’t afraid of doing the work—I knew I could do it. But would another rewrite result in a better book, or just a different book?

Because my first book is largely about trees and what they can teach us, and because I live with them and had been doing a lot of research, I had an epiphany in that moment without any further deliberation. I knew suddenly and without a doubt that it was time for me to release this book.

And I knew why.

The one question I get asked at every reading is: How do you know when it’s done? Maybe people ask me this because they know it took me twelve years to finish my first novel. Maybe it’s because they are also trying to finish a book, and they understand the cycle of improving and progressing while at the same time realizing how much further you have to go. Whenever you undertake a large project, whether fiction or nonfiction, things happen during the process: your skills improve, the world changes, your understanding deepens. Sometimes, you even outgrow your idea.

No one wants to give up on their book, but sometimes walking away is the right thing to do.

Other times, it’s not. Other times, you need to take ten or twelve or twenty years to dig deeper until you uncover what it is you’re looking for, what you’re trying to say, and what your book is teaching you. You can’t rush a book any more than you can rush a plant.

My first book took me twelve years because I started writing it two weeks after my husband had an accident with a table saw. He’s okay now, but for an entire year he lost the use of his right hand. Our children were ages two and five. We heat our home exclusively with wood. It was fall, winter was coming, and I didn’t know how to split firewood.

I also didn’t know how plot a novel, how to toggle between scene and summary; I didn’t know about rotating narratives or psychic distance or novel thought; I didn’t even have a room to write in during most of the process, but I wrote because I had to make sense of this time in my life. I wrote to mourn who we had been and what we had lost. I wrote to understand why living this way was so hard and what it was teaching me. I wrote to give voice to an understanding that was taking shape and connected to a world that was bigger than just me, and I could only find that understanding by going back to this material again and again. I wrote to put all of these things into a time capsule that would keep for eternity and then, twelve years later, because of that tree, I knew that I was done.

The leaves tumbled down in streams of shifting light with yellows the color of stained glass. From my high school science class, I knew about photosynthesis and how in the autumn the leaves fell. But before that moment, I had never seen a tree choosing to drop its leaves. I’d always assumed they fell when they got knocked off, or ripped from the branches by high winds.

But no—a tree chooses to let its leaves go once it is no longer receiving nourishment from them. At that point, it must let them go, because if it doesn’t, the tree won’t survive the winter. The tree also wouldn’t go on to regenerate new growth in the spring, and the cycle of photosynthesis would not continue.

I knew I was done with this book because it was no longer teaching me. I had learned what I had set out to understand and found the answers to the questions I had asked. It was time to release my leaves, to let these pages go, not because they were perfect, but because, to me, they were beautiful and my gift to the world. If I didn’t let them go, they would shrivel and die while still clutched in my hands.

My stories will never be perfect, but I must let them go before I twist the life out of them. I have many more leaves to grow.

Carol Dunbar is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Net Beneath Us, winner of the Wisconsin Writers: Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award, and A Winter’s Rime. She is a former actor, playwright, and coloratura soprano who left her life in the city to move off the grid. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The South Carolina Review, Midwestern Gothic, and on Wisconsin Public Radio. She writes from a solar-powered office on the second floor of a water tower in northern Wisconsin, where she lives in a house in the woods with her husband, two kids, and a Great Pyrenees Mountain Dog.