Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Little Nostalgia (Very Little)

I'm feeling nostalgic today. Perhaps it was the rain yesterday and today, which kept me inside staring at my computer and feeling morose, or perhaps it's because I just finished the first draft of another novel and now I have time to let my mind wander in a different way.

My nostalgia around writing takes one of two forms--thinking about my earlier work and recalling those who helped me along the way, beginning with teachers from way back when. Today I'm thinking mostly about the stories from years ago that were never published.

I have dozens of stories and articles locked in limbo on floppy disks. A couple of years ago I got a disk reader for my iBook, but it would only read disks of a certain color (black was in, everything else was out). Granted, these disks are old and the work stored on them older still but I was curious to find what was there. The titles on the labels didn't ring any bells, and the one or two articles I really wanted to find weren't listed on the labels. I had recently had a request for an article I'd written and discussed on a panel, so I set about finding it. I couldn't find a paper copy, but I knew I had a backup. After all this looking, all I can say is, I believe I did at one time have a backup.

My confidence in digital records was never very great, and it diminishes with each passing year. I have stacks of floppies with once treasured work that I will probably never see again in any form, having thrown away paper copies for the blissful delusion of preserving rare storage space by relying on disks. I have two old backup systems that I never use now--and I would need a different attachment to read them. My MacBook Air needs an attachment for just about everything.

Work composed before I got a computer is still accessible because the paper hasn't yet turned to dust, so I occasionally come across something I wrote in my teens and twenties and even into my thirties. Two things catch my eye. First, there's an occasional phrase or insight that feels new to me and I ponder this and think about reusing it. Second, the earlier nonfiction pieces have an underlying confidence that amuses me--this is youth at its most obvious and annoying.

I once decided to rework an earlier (much, much earlier) story and began by ruthlessly cutting out everything that was mediocre, unimaginative, a cliche, etc. After a few hours of this--rereading, cutting, rethinking--I was left with two paragraphs I considered acceptable. I still don't know what to do with them, but the experience taught me how much my writing has changed over the years.

Except for the days when I have a little extra time on my hands, or it's raining like a monsoon, I rarely think about my old work. It's done, published or put away, and no longer relevant to what I'm doing now. I'm one who believes that life is a series of rooms that we should inhabit fully as we pass through, then turn off the light as we leave and move on. I may never find out what's on those old floppies, but I know I'll never care beyond a mild curiosity, and if they're stacked on the desk when I have a wastebasket in my hand, they may disappear and I will never think about them again.


  1. Such a relevant post to my situation right now. I do still have current digital (on my hard drive) copies of fiction I wrote up to 18 years ago, some of it in your group, Susan. I have it only because I kept copying it up to the next computer.

    I'm diving back into the Murder in the Greenhouse mystery I wrote about two-thirds of in 1993-1994 as part of your writers group at that time. I'm thinking about starting a new cozy series based on the original premise of an organic farmer protagonist.

    Mainly I'm astonished by how much I have learned about writing in the ensuing 18 years and how, frankly, crappy the writing is in my first book. As you mention in your gleaning of the substance in your early work, I think I can use the essence of the characters and setting. But the writing? I'm starting from scratch. Time does march on.


  2. I have also lost a great deal of work along the way and it is discouraging. As Edith notes, rereading old work can be discouraging since we've learned so much about writing since. Writing is, after all, a process. I think we improve with age. However, old manuscripts can be rewritten and improved upon if we save them.

  3. As a former techie and girl geek, I am a great believer in the "hard" copy. Still have (embarrassing) essays and papers from college. It helps to see one's growth as a writer over the years and decades. Sometimes I still steal stuff from my first unpublished novel. Even flawed fiction can have some gems.

  4. I think you're all correct about how earlier work can show us how much we've grown as writers. And perhaps it's good for us to wince once in a while over our earlier efforts, and then smile and move on.

    What can I say about paper? I love hard copy. I now keep paper files of everything I think is worth keeping and publishing, which means my office is a mess but that's another story.

    Thanks for commenting.

  5. Susan, in preparation for leaving town, i started going through old clips from the mid-'80s when i was community editor & feature writer for the gd times. Since many of the features were historical pieces about Cape Ann, i handed them over to Fred and Stephanie Buck, archivists at the Cape Ann Museum. later, i got to reading the duplicates i still had, and they're so presumptuously folksy, i'm heartily embarrassed. aargh! grace

  6. I have a folder of those big 5.5" floppies that I know have stories on them but I'll never retrieve them. However I did dig out a story from 20 years ago and rewrote it with a ghostly twist. It is now a Kindle Single called Ghosts of A Beach Town in Winter and has been climbing steadily on Amazons Selling charts so that's encouraging.

  7. Susan,
    Your post really hit home. Just this morning I sent my daughter-in-law an account of my childhood Halloweens which had been published in 1993. I went through major gyrations to find it, but now our grandchildren are the right age to read it. Even if our writing improves, it's still great to have those old files kicking around somewhere. Paper files will always be a part of this household. Thanks for the fun post. Liz

  8. Perhaps what I should have written was how much I (or we) have changed over the years. I sympathize with Grace's comment about looking back on her early work and being embarrassed by it but I also relate to Kathleen and Elizabeth who both found a way to reuse old work. I have noted that no one said they found old work and just gave it a simple revision and then sent it out. To one degree or another, we don't like our old work as it is.