Writing from my past

The other day I was looking through my email for some writing I’d sent myself[1] and ran into some writing from my past. From a decade ago.

A whole freaking decade.

Ignoring the fact that my email address is ancient, probably needs a clear out, and is likely taking up far more of the world’s server storage capacity with my undeleted spam and back and forth communications with Felicity than I’d like to admit, I was actually really excited to run into this relic from my past.

Whenever I hear about people finding old pieces of writing it’s almost always presented as: “Oh God, I was so bad, how on earth did I even write so badly, why did I even keep going, I’m so glad I got better.” I’ve even talked about looking back on old work to identify writing progress before and it’s still valid. Old pieces of writing are like wormholes to your past thinking and writing self.

So, ideally, you get better over time right? Particularly a decade of time.

Except, when I opened the files to read it… I was impressed.

There were problems, sure – long sentences, the dialogue felt like a conversation I was having with myself[2] and, despite a strong opening concept, the piece rambled. I had no idea where it was going. But on the whole? It wasn’t bad and, in some ways, it’s better than what I’m writing now.

The old pieces had life in them. They sprung and raced, they had places to be and they were enthusiastic about getting there. I had fun reading it!

And it made me worried.

What if I’ve lost “it”? My writing mojo, my groove, the thing that made me write something and believe I was shit hot and everyone else should just step aside and let me show them how it was done. There was arrogance in the writing, there was confidence and excitement.

I certainly don’t feel like I have that anymore when I write, and I don’t feel that when I read my writing back to myself.

Has that been beaten out of me? Have I learned too much and now I’m stilted? Have I lost touch with that joy?

Probably not. It’s not like the skill to write like that is something I no longer have. It’s not like I’ve forgotten how to put words one after the other or how to get really enthused writing about something I love and think is incredibly cool.

I know, also, that more often than not the things you’re writing right now feel like crap and that things don’t seem so bad when you read over them weeks later or, in this case, years later. Maybe I felt horrible writing those bits. Maybe I thought it was all crap and I’d never be any good. I know those feelings about writing aren’t something that just showed up recently. So maybe I’m romanticising my writing-self back then and my feelings here have more to do with problems I’m having and feeling about my writing now.

It made me realise, too, that in lots of ways I’m proud of my writing now and I can objectively say I’ve improved. The idea of finishing a full draft of a novel, let alone four of them, was alien to the me who wrote that material. I was years off getting anything written that was that long. I was years off finishing anything. I was years off learning about how stories worked – in fact I actively avoided learning about how stories worked. I figured you either knew how to write or you didn’t – and I believed I knew how it worked. I believed if I studied and thought too much about it I’d lose that my natural…whatever I had going. Writing wasn’t something that was hard, it was just something I did. My thinking then was naïve and arrogant. “I don’t need to learn how to do this, I just do it.”

And the sort of writing I did was incomplete. Lots and lots of first acts was what I did. Not even full drafts – just like, really interesting opening sequences. All narrative problem, never developing to any sort of resolution.

I was all belief that I was a good writer. That everything I wrote was amazing and it was just a matter of time before it got accepted. Ignoring the fact that I’d never finished anything or knew where the hell it would get accepted and what that would involve. I just assumed I would write long enough that the piece would magically finish on its own and be done then. No more effort required. Perfect straight out of my brain.

It’s embarrassing to admit but I truly believed that that was how being a writer worked.

I’ve learned differently since. I’ve learned that starting is not the same as finishing and finishing isn’t the same as a story being done and done has nothing to do with the writing being any good. I’ve got a whole lot of rejection slips telling me that and I plan to get a whole lot more before this year is out.

But I wonder if I’ve swung too hard that way in the years since I wrote those pieces. If I’ve started focusing too much on making sure a piece ticks all the technically correct boxes and have forgotten how to write something that makes me punch the air with joy.

It’s not like if I tick all the boxes on a checklist the piece is automatically ‘good’. If it was everyone would learn the checklist and pump out phenomenal stuff. Maybe I’ve gotten too obsessive with ticking all the boxes. With scrubbing at the work until there’s nothing left to scrub and then presenting it. Sure, it needs scrubbing from first draft to final, but maybe I’m scrubbing too hard. I’ve spoken before about over editing things before and I think that’s what I’m seeing here again in this raw, completely unedited material – there’s something to lose if I focus too much on getting it ‘right’ and not enough on the story I’m trying to tell.

I feel like I’ve lost some of my seat of my pants brashness in my writing and I’d like to dig back into that. I’ve spent so long editing and practicing pulling apart my work I haven’t put as many words on paper. I haven’t created as much.

I think my next step is to find a balance. To somehow learn to simultaneously pretend that everything I write is excellent and re-find my arrogance hat that makes me believe I’m a good writer, but somehow temper that with the practice and continuing learning of story structure and editing processes and resilience and patience I’ve been practicing instead over the last few years.

There has to be a way to keep that younger me enthusiasm and self-belief, and the patient, several draft writer I am at the moment. Whatever works, right?

[1] This is a bad habit of mine I’ve been doing for ages. Despite having a Dropbox and USBs I tend to default to emailing material back and forth to myself a couple of times a week.

[2] Unfortunately, I suspect this is still the case. Dialogue is one of my focus areas for this year.

1 Comment for “Writing from my past”

says:

That’s great you got to read over some old stuff! (Also, I have the bad habit of emailing myself things, too! Keep in mind I have Dropbox, more USB flash drives than I care to admit, and all sorts of other services. Yet I still email things. Old habits die hard, I guess. I remember the days when Dropbox didn’t exist and USB flash drives were too expensive to buy!)

Anyway… I feel like we’re always learning as writers… and I guess we do lose some joy in the process as time goes on and we realize how difficult it is to write something decent. And it’s even more difficult to get it published. And even harder to make an actual living at this.

To rediscover the joy, maybe doing some random free-writing would help? Take a prompt, sit down, and just write for ten minutes (or twenty minutes, or however long you want) straight. Don’t worry about having someone look at it. Write as if there’s no audience. I don’t know about you, but I find that when I become to excessively focused on getting published and what my beta readers are going to think of my work, a lot of the joy of creating it goes away. I’m not saying never to show it to beta readers or try to get published. Just try to put those thoughts out of your mind for a while, at least while doing the first draft.

P.S. Obviously I have many areas to improve on as a writer (who doesn’t?!), but I’m rather proud of my dialogue. I hope I’ll be able to offer helpful dialogue suggestions at some point. 🙂