Revisiting the Past

Like most of the members of our Today’s Author community, I’ve been writing since I was very young.  Stories, poems, plays, diary entries (all on paper, since I’m a relic from the days before computers and blogs existed)… whatever it was, I wrote a lot as a young boy and as a teen.  And as you would expect, some of what I wrote was very good, some was very bad and some was very average.  I kept it all, though, in folders and files.  Over the years, I typed much of it into the computer so that I could stop lugging reams of paper around all the time, but I didn’t edit or modify as I did so, I just typed it in.

There are days when I pull up one of these old stories or the old file of poetry and read through them.  Some of it is downright embarrassing to read — either because of the quality of the work or because of the memory of the teenaged emotions that fueled the work in the first place.  But some of it is actually good, potentially-useable stuff.  But I am often torn about what to do with this old stuff.  At the time I wrote it, it was “done” and fine.  But now, with the wisdom of my many, many years, there are times when I look at these old stories and think I can rewrite them now and they would be so much better than they were when I wrote them at 13 years old.  Then, as I think about the rewrite, I overthink it and decide that there is no way I could actually end up with something better… it would just be different. I am strongly considering doing this with a couple of the stories I wrote in high school that were very popular among my friends… though I keep hesitating because I have this memory of how popular the stories were at the time and I don’t want to damage that memory either.

So, today I’m doing a little bit of a poll of our readership, to try to gauge your thoughts on this.  Assuming you have kept the stories you wrote as a child or as a teen… do you ever go back and re-read it?  What do you think of your efforts from back then?  Have you considered taking one of your old works and rewriting it now from your more mature point of view?

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25 thoughts on “Revisiting the Past

  1. I didn’t keep the things I wrote when young. I do, though, have a lot from about twenty years ago when I was writing quite a bit. Unfortunately, I was then using Ami Pro for word processing, and I haven’t yet succeeded in translating it into word. Many pieces, some of which are quite good. And can I find a hard copy to type from? No. They have disappeared.
    There are a few I have come across in hard copy, so I typed them into my computer. And I made changes. I kept the original, and I have the newer version, but I prefer the newer because my writing is better today than it was then and I thought of a few things to add that made the pieces better.
    I suggest you rewrite. Yes, they’ll be different. Don’t start typing it in, copying from the original. Read it and write a whole new piece. On another day, write another piece. You may find you have some really good stuff. And of course it will be different. But perhaps it will be even better – just don’t think too much. Good luck to you!

  2. I like your analogy about the potentially revised piece being different, not better. I haven’t been writing “seriously” for very long, just over a year. But, the feelings and thoughts you convey apply just as well to me.

    I will often go back and read something I had written a year ago. And, like you, I sometimes almost laugh at the absurdity of the content. Poorly written, maybe. Embarrassing, likely. Authentic, absolutely.

    I am what most would call a recovering perfectionist. And you would think that my desire to go back and tinker with those pieces from the past would be impossible to resist. Truth is, I never have done so. Maybe it’s because it would be too much work, Maybe it’s because I’m lazy. But, more than anything, I know that it’s because one of my guiding principles is to remain vulnerable and authentic.

    Those pieces, however malformed they may have been, were an accurate reflection of my thoughts, feelings, and emotions at the time in my life. Going back and reading them may be difficult for my discerning perfectionist eye. But, there is more to a piece of writing than the words. There is the emotion and feeling held in the space between the words. And in that sense, to me, these are works of art. They tell a story of my growth as a writer and as a human being.

    I am sure that another year from now, I will look back on a piece I wrote today and think the same thing, “What was I thinking?” And in a strange and somewhat curious sort of way, I actually hope that is exactly what happens. It means I will have grown just a little bit more.

    • Well, that is definitely part of my thought process too –the originals are a reflection of who I was and the original versions would definitely be left intact if I do any kind of rewrite.

      (And yes, I, too, am a perfectionist and I’m not yet recovering…)

  3. I have almost everything that I wrote, and I typed up most of it later in the fear that I would lose it otherwise. My mom had a flood and some of my writing was destroyed that she was keeping for me. I took that as a wake up call that nothing was truly safe in handwritten form.

    I have scribbles that I would never, ever share with any public, and I have things that I would consider teenage angst pieces, and I had, well, just some bad writing at times as we all do. I did, though, have some gems of stories… and you know what? They never saw the light of day either. I don’t know why, but I am not unwilling to share them, I am just unsure as to how. Do I try to publish them? Do I use a blog format to get them out there? My current blog is a tribute to my baby daughter’s wonderful thought process and innocence, so they are not appropriate there. Where to publish has always been an issue for me– not whether or not I want some of my work out there.

    I remember running out of the bathtub or jumping out of bed only to scribble down what was running through my head… and sometimes they worked out. My blog has again allowed me to do this– to have these moments and to write them down as quickly as my mind and hands allow, and for that I am grateful. It is allowing me to live that way again in some sense, and to awaken what I thought might have gone quiet inside of me. My daughter right now is my muse, and I am forever grateful for her. This post has made me think about my old writing, though… and I might just dust a few things off and let them fly. Thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

    Dave Cenker is right though, I do often look back at certain pieces and say to myself, “What was a thinking?” This is just… ugh. I don’t get rid of pieces, or burn them, or toss them– but some of them I never want to read again myself… and those would never, ever go anywhere. For you… I say if you are proud of them, and you want to tweak them or even leave them as is, put a few out there and see what happens. You never know when you might hit a key note with some of your readers (and maybe some of them could gain a new audience for your work). As far as preserving the memory, maybe childhood or adolescent writing should stay as is as a moment in time, and maybe we should time stamp them. They are our beginnings after all.

    • “I”… I hate typos. I should always edit before clicking post. This time I didn’t. Instant post regret.

    • I, too, lost some old pieces to humidity and flooding in my basement. So, yes, now I have everything digitally stored in numerous locations now, just in case.

      If I were to rewrite any of the old stuff, it would be a true re-write and the original works would be left as they were.

      • I am on the edge of paranoid about losing things. 🙂

        Agreed on re-writes and originals… although a cool hybrid conversation with your “old” and “new” selves has the potential for something interesting.

  4. Absolutely, I keep everything I write, and I always have. My childhood writings serve as inspiration for me to reconnect with my creative childhood self. This is not the case with teenage and young adult writings, but I view those as part of my journey and therefore immensely important to me. I do occasionally pull some of them out and see if I can rework and reuse them. But mostly it helps my sanity to have a sense of continuity and progress in my writing life.

  5. I had mixed reviews on mine also, although several provided a starting point for new articles.

  6. Sadly, I have nothing left of my childhood writings, just memories, but there are still some diaries I wrote as a teen, which I read from time to time, with glowing ears and cheeks, but also a strange sort of pride that those early scribblings put me on the path I’m on now. I agree with Emily’s comments, read through an old piece, then set it aside and write it afresh from a present day perspective. You’ll find how much you have grown as a writer, which will give you a boost, but also discover how much talent you already showed at an early age, instead of looking back with regret that you didn’t write as well then as you do now. Writing = Life = Journey = lifelong

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post. Now I must go back to the mystery novel I started in 2011…

    • Yes, some of the stuff, especially the sappy, borderline-emo poetry, brings a bit of a glow to my cheeks as well. But most of it brings a smile or a laugh.

      And yes, if I were to rewrite, I’d do it as a new start on it… a reboot as it were.

  7. I recently rediscovered a huge pre-teen body of work which I amassed years ago! Most of it is hilarious (an eight year old’s view of world order) but there were a couple in there that made me go, whoa. One in particular, I don’t recall writing and so am afraid to re-post for fear that I merely copied it from another book. It seems to smart to have come from me! Thanks for this post, it’s nice to reminisce.

    • Not quite the same, but similar to that fear of copying… I have a story I wrote as a kid that has a character who — I learned many years later — shares a name with another author’s character. I truly had no idea at the time, though I suppose it’s possible I heard the name mentioned somewhere along the line. I’d have to go digging to remember which character and story this was and to this day I have not read the other author’s work. I doubt there are any similarities between the characters besides their names, but still it was an awkward thing to realize back then.

  8. I do this all the time, although the previous stuff I wrote was creative nonfiction. And I did revise a piece I wrote in college, submitted it to four lit mags, and it got accepted/was published last December. There’s gold in them old hills!

  9. I’m on the fence about this. On one hand, like a painting, it’s a finished piece and shouldn’t be recreated, however we’ve all heard the story of x-rayed canvases that were painted over. I’d like to think that happened out of necessity as canvas was expensive for struggling artists.

    I think its OK to be inspired by a previous work. While you could re-write the piece–its your creation, after all– I’d worry the original would lose the place it’s held in your heart/mind all these years.

    • Absolutely, if I were to revisit a story, it would be a new take on it. The original would remain the same so as not to lose that “charm” or whatever it might have.

      • Better yet, think of it like a photograph–a snapshot in time. You can always recreate a photo, yet the subject (people, landscape) will never be exactly the same.

  10. Rob, how prescient you were to have saved your childhood writing. I have nothing, not even from college. The earliest writing I have is a children’s story written when I was a young mother, that I may someday revisit with much needed editing. It’s still a viable story.
    Even if I had such early childhood work, I would not touch it. Impressive creativity or slobbering melodrama (and I suspect that most of it was in the latter category,) it was complete when I was young, a mark of who I was then. I’ve moved on. Changing very old work won’t make it better, it will make it a new piece, and I see that as destruction of what I once was. That’s why I think you should treasure what you’ve saved that you wrote when you were young. Leave it as is, the little boy in the sepia photo. Would you draw a beard on that lovely old photo?
    I’m also an artist. Once I’ve signed a painting or drawing, it’s done, the work of the artist I was at that time. As writers and artists, we do that all the time – complete work and move on.
    Now a work-in-progress – and I’ve got three of those in active queue at the moment – I will edit until I think the piece is ready to present, and then I will query madly. I want them published, in some way. I’m close to the final revision on all three books but need a serious chunk of time to make those last edits, and time is a rare commodity for me.
    I wonder if you’d be willing to share one of your early pieces with us? It would be illuminating to read something you wrote when you were a kid.

  11. It’s good to keep the process and history of your art. It will be a very interesting exercise re-writing these stories now. I think go for it. Your stories are allowed to grow up as you did and benefit from your experience as much as your current writing does. Comparing the works would be a great assessment on your how you’ve grown as a writer. You won’t destroy the original- just as you cannot destroy the 13 year old who wrote that story. Both are inside you.

  12. I need to do that with my first novel, written in 2008! I often think when I look at my old stories that the ideas and the imagery are there, I just need to polish the presentation, so I might tweak the structure or tighten up the prose. But I don’t see that as destroying the original – it’s more like restoring an old building.

  13. Coming from an era where females were supposed to stay at home and look after the children and husband, or, be nurses or sechetaries, my mother thought the idea of me wanting to write or be a journalist, was laughable. She numbered all the pages of my school notebooks so I couldn’t tear any out to write stories on. What stories I did get to put down on paper I’d managed to forage from wastepaper in the classroom, ended up in the rubbish bin. I lived for Mondays, which were ‘Composition’ days in class where we were told, “Write two and a half pages on…” Oh joy! Oh Bliss!
    I was the only kid in our 5th grade class whose face lit up like a Christmas tree at those words. Stories I wrote in junior high never went anywhere, and I’d definitely have to do major overhauls on any of them if they were still around.

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