Searching my notebook for things to be avoided

Navel-gazing. Sentimentality. Triumphs of despair. Autobiography.

Wild words, no?

I thought of them, this past weekend, after enjoying an interesting conversation with a writer and former professor in the Harvard writing program. We discussed, among other readerly/writerly things, the stories we wrote last year or years ago–the stuff we cannot seem to place. She mentioned a story that was rejected two dozen times before it was accepted. I brought up shapeshifting, the way old stories seem to take on new and different forms each time I revisit them–how I have already moved on to new projects, ideas, creative paths, by the time this reunion with past work takes place.

She, for the most part, agreed.

It occurs to me that, though a writer’s relationship with her past work is complicated, there can be value in an examination of past writings, no matter how wretched we might regard that chicken-scratch claptrap in the here and now. Old work often contains goodies suitable for future use; sometimes the story itself is worth reviving, putting back into the revision cycle.

Which brings me to my notebook, a little Leuchtturm 1917. I recently revisited a handful of early stories to take the pulse, so to speak, and see if they might not offer some insight. During this practice in bald-faced masochism, I came across four attributes–subconscious or otherwise–that seemed to permeate all the work I was putting out at this particular time, attributes that glare at me now. Back in March, I even felt compelled to sketch myself a modest reminder to avoid these four crap-traps:

That I am no visual artist, and still cannot decide if “navel-gazing” should be hyphenated, is beside the point. This page from my notebook illustrates one way my study of past work has furnished me with perspective, circumspection. For whatever reason, my (over)use of these attributes–navel-gazing, sentimentality, triumphs of despair, and autobiography–has run its course and, in my present work, I strive to weed it out, smooth it over, or avoid it entirely.

This, of course, is true only of my own writing–I will be the last to advocate for the disappearance of certain attributes or areas of focus from writing in general (the reasons why I identified these four attributes above all others is, perhaps, better left to a future musing). The fact is, I probably gravitated to these because there have been so many works I have read that execute these attributes well. I was emulating. Now I would like to do something new, which means a break from that which I was once so reliant upon.

Still, sometimes it is useful to look back.

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