Archives or Compost Heap: Weeding Through Your Old Writing

I think Milton and I collaborated on this one, before he did Paradise Lost

This past week I’ve been sifting through old, very old and even cobwebbed articles of mine, prompted by a contest requesting an essay-collection submission. The winner will have their collection published, and will probably be knighted in a ceremony involving champagne baths and French horns. (There’s still time to enter if you have hoary archives of your own: check out the Monadnock Essay Collection Prize.)

It’s funny to go through old pieces of writing, because it’s like looking at old pictures of yourself: there’s one with a funny haircut, why in God’s name would you wear that, and were you really so fascinated by that dull place? And in the reading, you see that the adamantine habits in your writing that you’ve tried so hard to eliminate—say, using limp qualifiers like “just” or “very” willy nilly—began long ago, and like old scars, are still visible now.

But what really occurred to me in going through this dusty pile of hides in the cellar is that I’ve been doing this for a long time. The contest required between 50,000–60,000 words in the collection, and I had to throw away many candidates—with all the scribbling I’ve done over time, I could have put three collections of published material together. So, I’m lucky that way, because there was a lot of dreck in there, from which to winnow.

Cream Over Pig’s Legs

Looking at some of the material I wrote makes me thankful that a lot of the journals and outlets that published it have properly faded away—the old bones no longer smell. But it’s nice to have a history to sift through, because you can tuck a lot of the pieces that have pig’s legs to the bottom, which means that something—one hopes cream—rises.

It’s also fun—playing the publisher—to arrange the pieces, in some kind of loose thematic scheme: I found an introductory piece that opens up from a colorful memory of a trip to Vegas and it moves into a “what is the American character” flavor, which feels like a good way to gun the engine at the start. The concluding piece supplies a sense of “it’s a shaky cosmos, but we’re all in it together.” As an editor, that was a fun exercise in scaffolding and structure.

Scrivener Makes Them Toe the Line

Speaking of editing, I used Scrivener to pull all the essays together in bulk, and then its wonderful drag-and-drop sorting to instantly move them around. And around and around, since I was working with the first cull of between 50–100 essays, and tossed them all about in the compilation many times, eliminating many, changing some words in a few, fiddling with titles. Then I dumped it all back into Word for final formatting.

So, all of those muscle spasms I’ve had over the years at the keyboard were worth something. I doubt I’ll win the contest, but it was interesting to filter through the perspectives (and use of language) seen in my past pieces, and to see what were constants and what were flirtations. Who knows, I might use the collection as a freebie to induce the innocent to sign up for my email list, so I can torment more readers.

If you’ve been writing for a while, do you ever go back to your old stuff? Do you cringe or do you crow? I saw a fair amount of piffle, but there were some gems too. Enough to keep on writing and see if I can do better.

2 thoughts on “Archives or Compost Heap: Weeding Through Your Old Writing

  1. I see my old stuff all the time, and it’s quite the mix of intrigue and nonsense. My nonfiction has always been reasonably mature. My fiction has progressed somewhat since my early efforts (circa 1974.) “Somewhat” is a precise term meaning “aeons, lightyears, leaps and bounds.”

    My song snippets in the “what is this?” file are more like what you experienced in your delving. A few make me wonder how high my fever was at the time, most are just words, and a few get copied to my desktop to inspire or nudge or remind.

  2. Joel, when you are finished bringing in the sheaves of your clippings, you can organize mine. You will be good at it, because your Volume 1 “mix of intrigue and nonsense” could easily be bound next to my Volume 2, since they are kindred souls. Though maybe if a lot of yours were those high-fever offerings, they probably should be bound in asbestos.

    When it’s time, you can contribute to my Presidential Library and I to yours. At least there will be kindling for winters to come.

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