A very kind friend of mine asked me to submit a story for a reading event she’s planning and I thought, sure. Why not?
The story I sent was one I had edited and finished not too terribly long ago — six months — and that I had since submitted to journals and felt fully confident in. I sent it off to her directly, a little excited that a friend who had read none of my fiction before would now have the chance to read a story I was proud of.
Except of course when I went back and re-read the story after emailing it off into internet oblivion, it seemed a little… different.
It was the same story I remember it being when I first wrote it. I was still proud of it. But as I read, I began to notice things — the voice was different than I remembered, the structure not as I would have done it now. The characters were still as I wanted them to be, but overall, the story I remembered writing slipped away and this new thing appeared before me.
Sometimes, a writer will get really brave and will go back and read over the things they wrote in the past. Of course, re-reading work is an essential part of editing and re-writing. That’s not the kind of re-reading I am talking about here. What I am talking about here are things that have been waited on, edited, workshopped and vetted. Dubbed finished and submitted, even published.
Inevitably, when you go back and re-read all your finished pieces, published or not, the shimmering things you thought were there are usually gone. Some form of them may appear, but it seems as if they’ve transformed somehow, as if someone came in and edited in the night.
That was how I felt re-reading this story now thoroughly out of my grasp and whisked off to an inbox I had no access to.
I calmed myself as best I could.
I had done my due diligence with this work; I drafted, re-drafted, waited until I forgot the story, re-read and re-drafted again, workshopped, re-drafted, edited minutely, and had a trusted friend do one last beta-read before I pronounced it ready to enter this world. I put my name on it and saved it, moved it to the “Ready to Submit” folder on my computer and called it a day. All that not even six months ago and here I am, re-reading it again and feeling just a little sick that it would be the first fiction impression my friend would have.
This has happened to me before. A story I wrote years ago, that I stashed and then pulled back out during a critique session because I could still see the dull glimmer of its spark had betrayed me in the same way. I re-wrote this one, workshopped, edited, let it lie, edited again, beta-read — the works. I marked it finished and submitted it. And months after submitting it, I re-read it again and considered withdrawing it because was this really my best work on a page, really? The next day, it was accepted for publication. Oddly enough, all the worries about the piece then evaporated on the spot. (The universe works in mysterious ways.)
This has also happened to my poems, various essays, and other things that have not yet seen the light of day. I have several things out on submission right now that I felt completely comfortable sending out when I did. Now I’m afraid to look. Best to let the sleeping dog of anxiety lie.
Of course, it’s not the words that have changed — I’ve changed.
And sure, as I put in the 10,000 hours and write down the bones and stay with the early discomfort of not knowing what the hell I’m doing, as the taste gap narrows just the slightest crack, this change has plenty to do with improvement (god, hopefully.)
But so much of it is just the changing and evolution of my own life’s story. My voice evolves with my age and experiences. Characters and settings I was interested in last year are old hat now. Reading new things and discovering new artists affects how I structure a story. Life changes disrupt my sense of what is essential.
There’s something to be said here about when to re-edit or even when to retire works and move on from them. But then there’s the simple issue of insecurity combined with the powerful force of perfectionism. What must be remembered was that the you who wrote the old piece was still a valid you. So many times, it’s not that the piece is poor — it’s that the piece represents a you that has already moved on. There are plenty of old pieces of mine that still resonate with me as I read them now. There are many that do not. And there are some that make me cringe.
But that was me then and this is me now. Me now will soon be a me then. And so on and so forth.
We are always in active evolution. If we are people who care to learn and grow, then we are living a story that will never be finished. Which makes it very difficult to know when to deem a story finished. Today, I think it is finished. Ten years from now, I may think it is childish.
Writing is about communication; it’s a whistle in the dark. Is anyone there? Can anyone relate? How lonely. And how unfair — to only send out a certain approved you at a certain approved time when, certainly, it will all change give or take a few weeks and a few experiences.
If I were to give in to this perfectionist desire to only send out the me that happens to be me today and cast aside all the shades of me that have walked through this world, I would be left sitting as alone with my stories as I was prior to sending them out. It’s the same trap we fall into when we choose a start date for dieting or a day on which we will quit a bad habit. We promise to start on January 1st. By January 2nd, the year is shot and we have failed. But the opportunity to begin again is today, the next hour, the next minute, always. We have the luxury of learning and growing with each minute we have.
So, I did not pick up the phone and tell my friend to please, pretty please delete that email and let’s never speak of it again. I’m letting it ride. Because once upon a time, that story that a corner of me is still proud of still represents a corner of me on paper.
This is evolution. And I am here to learn.