You know the scene in adventure movies where the protagonist, digging feverishly where the “X” on the map has led, hits metal in the mud? That was me last weekend, only I wasn’t excavating earth, just the closet in my home office. And the telltale clunk wasn’t a spade striking a strongbox, but an heavy old briefcase nearly striking my skull as it slid down from an overhead shelf.
It was my laptop from college, a monolithic Dell Inspiron weighing more than my guitar. Had I really schlepped this thing to the university library in a backpack? Incredibly, it still powered on. More incredibly, I still remembered the password. Nerves and nostalgia went into overdrive as I entered the electronic world of J.K. at age 22.
Icons for three different writing programs adorned the desktop (those miserable Dark Ages before Scrivener!), along with a mid-2000s Tomb Raider game. But the computer’s treasure wasn’t in Lara Croft’s catacombs. It lay buried in the file folders: four years’ worth of writing, from my undergraduate workshop assignments to the unfettered fiction never read outside the cinderblock walls of my dorm. I started browsing it out of curiosity. Hours later, I emerged in a daze. Turns out that reviewing your old work can offer far more than just judgmental laughs at your own expense. It’s also a surprising source of insight about your current and future writing.
1. Assess Your Chronic Challenges
It’s easy to criticize in retrospect, looking down on our past selves from a pedestal of superior competence. “Ha, this dialogue is awful!” I snickered as I scrolled through one story…until I recognized weaknesses similar to my current work. It confirmed a suspicion I’d developed while editing my most recent project: my draft dialogue is consistently bad, a scene-moving crutch that takes two or three revisions to hone. Apparently that’s always been a struggle for me. Now I know to pay extra attention to it in the future. Old writing can be a mirror to examine present practices, a time-traveling critique session with our past selves.
Abandoning the impulse to sneer also let me appreciate the promise in my early work. Vignettes adapted from my real-life experiences of the day—working at a grocery store, ballroom dancing at cotillion, my mingled jealously and dismay at the immature antics of “cooler” friends—possess a limpidity that my genre work lacks. Maybe it gets lost in the world-building, or perhaps freedom from classroom page limits allowed my style to get a bit overstuffed. Going forward, I’ll strive to recapture that clean, unpretentious prose. Turns out that a progress check can help spot useful things we’ve forgotten along the way.
2. Identify Your Strengths
Overall, my college writing wasn’t as irredeemable as I’d feared. I opened each file with trepidation, ready to skim the page and close the window before shame set in, but many of the first lines sucked me into reading the whole document:
- “Five local news channels and I’m not on a single one,” Lily snarled, rolling over and digging her knuckles into the foamy Econolodge mattress.
- Adrenaline got me down thirty miles of interstate before comprehension set in, and I understood that I had just shot my partner.
- Mom always told us not to play in the laboratory, but of course we did it anyway.
Even in my teens, I could bait a juicy hook! Maybe it’s the musician in me, unable to resist a catchy opening riff. Even now, I can’t start a draft without an interesting launch line. Dialogue might challenge me, but it seems I’ve got a knack for dynamic openings.
But that shiny lure needs substance beneath it. A piece written for archaeology class, fictionalizing events at a famous Neolithic site in Ireland, opened with this caveat:
“My research failed to produce sufficient information on the appearance or clothing of Irish Neolithic peoples, so my descriptions are minimal. Similarly, I was unable to find any given names that might have been used during that period. Rather than compromise accuracy, I have constructed the narrative without names. Though all the elements appearing in my writing have been drawn from documented fact, their operation in the context of ritual and society is the work of my own imagination, tempered by knowledge of Neolithic archaeology and an interest in creating a believable interpretation of Irish prehistory.”
Plausibility is a cornerstone of my author platform today. You might say I aspire to “put the science back in sci-fi”. It seems this commitment to facts within fiction is not a recent development, but a dedicated practice going back more than a decade. I hope I can keep it up and do my student self proud!
3. Survey Your Natural Habitat
Both the workshop pieces and my personal scribblings reveal the tropes I adored as a teen: gritty heroines, smoldering partner-lover complexes, and things that aren’t what they seem on the surface. Fifteen years on, those elements still appear in almost all my published work. Reading the prototypical versions made me laugh. Have I always been that predictable? And if so, is it entirely a bad thing?
Many authors, especially Indies, thrive on formula, working the fertile ground between what they can consistently produce and what readers will consistently buy. Is there a market niche for tales of tough girls and their sidekicks, who unravel conspiracies together while denying their attraction as long as they can stand? I bet there is. Instead of resisting my instincts and trying to be capital-L Literary, I might stake out my native territory and cultivate it.
Another familiar refrain screamed at me from an essay I’d written junior year, for a course in 20th Century Popular Fiction. I evaluated three science fiction novels consistently subjected to gender commentary: The Left Hand of Darkness, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Dreamsnake. Think you can spot where this is going? Hang on, there’s a twist. Iconoclastic even in youth, I proceeded to dismantle critical studies about the books’ feminist themes:
The fact that a woman authored the text automatically opens it to critique as a ‘feminist work’…is it reasonable to assume that women writers employ the genre exclusively to this end? …Feminist critics who reduce women’s writing to propaganda betray their own principles by violating the belief in equality foundational to feminism itself. Science fiction offers a universe of blank canvas, allowing writers the freedom to create without restriction. If women writers are denied that freedom, even by well-meaning and supportive critics, then we have seen a new face of sexism reflected in the eyes of literature.
The feisty polemic, written thirteen years ago, could have been last year’s blog post. I’ve never liked reducing creative output to a reflection of its author’s demographics. It’s one of the reasons I chose to publish under my initials, rather than my full name: I want to give readers the opportunity to judge my books independently of my personal identity. Egalitarianism seems to have been part of my natural writer’s habitat for a long time, and it’s ground I continue to defend with pride.
4. Rescue Your Recyclables
Except for a few short stories written for undergraduate workshops, all my old writing was unfinished. The most substantive pieces comprised a few chapters at most. Others were more notes than narrative, dense pages of creative raw material. Sorting through all the scraps, I found a surprising trove of decent ideas. Not that I need more of those right now—my novel queue is already several projects deep—but it’s nice to have a store of seedlings. If you find yourself short on inspiration, the muse might be hiding in your own creative compost heap, rich and ready to write.
5. Appreciate Your Evolution
I’ve been rather down on my writing the past few months (I imagine anyone who ever touched pen to paper experiences those phases), so the trajectory of my undergraduate development proved unexpectedly uplifting. Ancestors of characters and concepts in my published books appeared, raw but recognizable. They’ve come a long way! And even my most hackneyed drivel contained linguistic gems: young J.K. knew how to wield words, even if what she was writing wasn’t going to win any Pulitzer Prizes. Like my unfinished stories, I was a work in progress.
I still am.
Old writing reminds us that we exist on a continuum of growth, encouraging empathy even as it humbles us. Stories we’re proud of now will someday be the amateur work we scorn and stuff in a closet. But the writing we bury was once treasured, and if we occasionally bring it to light, we might discover it throws off enough shine to illuminate the path ahead.