After reading this post about childhood inspiration on Shannon A. Thompson’s blog, it got me to thinking about one of the earliest Rules of Writing I ever learnt, from my dad: Never Delete Anything.
When I was 13, I was obsessed with Dragon Ball Z. I also drew quite a lot more, and as I was not particularly confident about drawing people that looked like, well, people (or at least how I wanted them to look, and no, I’m not any more confident 13 years later), I drew animal-people instead. A bunch of those drawings turned into characters, and before I knew it I had come up with my first ‘official’ book idea: Animorians (C), genetically-modified super-soldiers with Ki powers, made from a combination of human and animal DNA, created by Monsanto to wipe out all opposition to genetic engineering and copyrighting DNA sequences. Naturally, as these things go, the super-soldiers turned on their cruel human overlords, and after the Animorians (C) collectively took up martial arts in order to curb their natural super-aggression, balance was restored to the galaxy (well, three galaxies, but same dif). And the actual story takes place a few thousand years after humanity is extinct. I guess I was a bit of a misanthrope in my youth.
I wrote that book a LOT. I had tried writing a book a few months prior to that named, for maximum originality, The Dragon Sword (guess what that was about), but it just didn’t get me going in the same way that my martial arts-practicing warrior race of adorable yet deadly, Disney-esque anthropomorphic animal/human hybrid creatures did. This book kept me going for like a year, and during that time I actually managed to write about a hundred pages of story. I was flying through it; I was about three-thirds of the way through the story and getting really jazzed about how things were turning out when I realised, to my dismay, that something I had written about eleven chapters ago didn’t quite sit right with me.
To this day I cannot quite remember what exactly went through my 13-year-old mind, how exactly I arrived at the conclusion that I did. I do remember thinking: ‘Well, I’ve done so well already and I’m on such a roll, I can’t possibly run out of momentum’. Perhaps that was enough.
Because I proceeded to delete everything I’d written back to – and including – the offending chapter, planning to just write it all again. With the appropriate edits, of course.
And, much to my surprise, I just didn’t really feel it when I tried to write it all down again. I started to realise that I was, shockingly, not enjoying writing the exact same stuff that I’d already spent a year writing, and eventually I petered out altogether.
I did write other drafts of that story, none of which I completed, but I did get up to around chapter 8 (which looked very different to the one I deleted), and those newly-written chapters, in which I spent no insignificant effort trying to recapture the original magic of what I’d so casually destroyed, I kept. Because that massive mistake, plus some sage words from my father, hit home to me the importance of always keeping your work available for reference. (As well as just saving you a LOT of time. And I do intend to finish this story one day. Probably with drawings.)
Our old work may embarrass us. Heck, our current work may embarrass us. (And now I have lived to see the day when I used the word ‘heck’ unironically. I feel so unclean.) But to throw it away is to forgo what it can teach us, even if we think we already know what we can learn from it, and that there’s nothing more to be gained.
Because our old work is not just our opinion of it. Our old work is also the opinions that we had while we wrote it, a record of where we were when it was relevant, and sometimes that’s a window into a relevance that, as we move on, we may want to find a way to open again, because we’ve lost sight of it as we chase after new horizons. Which is part of growing, and is a very good thing. But being able to look back on old things with new eyes, being able to capture perspective – I mean that’s what writers live for. We wish we could sit in on other people’s brains and see how they tick, yet sometimes forget that we, ourselves, have brains as well, and that sometimes we’re closed-off even to ourselves.
My next novel after I finish Tallulah is about a couple of 12-year-old kids, and I have absolutely no clue how to write a convincing 12-year-old kid (also, one of them is a girl, which is even more out of my jurisdiction). If I had some of my writing saved from when I was around that age, it would at least be a start.
But that’s not all. Old work can also give us new ideas; we often see things differently to how we did when we originally wrote them if we go back to revisit them, and it can often be just the brainwave we need, the forced perspective that suddenly clicks something into place that was just a little off. And, of course, it can sometimes reminds us of really cool, ambitious things we once tried, and now need a little shove to try again. Things we regretted never finishing.
And sometimes, we can actually return, if only temporarily, to the mindset we were in when we wrote it, and see our old work in all its relevance, be transported as if nothing had ever changed.
That last one has a very obvious double-edged quality to it, of course, and a lot of my old work – though newer than Animorians – has pulled me back into some very dark, anxious places. But I saw The Great Gatsby today, which is a divisive film from what I hear, and I really quite liked it. I haven’t read the book, and I’m open to the possibility that this may have had something to do with just how much I enjoyed the film, but the thing is that while, yes, Baz did get hip-hop in our 1920’s nostalgia (not to mention filming it in colour, how inauthentic can you get), it emphasised the things that he was trying to emphasise – the glamour, the swagger, the bravado of the era, and the emptiness of it all, the hollowness inherent in boasts of Greatness, how fickle it all is – and how that relates to our situation now, still recovering from the economic crisis. A lot of the songs featured were covers or used samples from old songs, remixing and re-envisioning Old Classics, and while some may not like the ‘update’ – and I certainly won’t begrudge them for that – the fact is that we can’t go back anyway. There is no way to be truly ‘authentic’ to that time, because that time has passed, and the only kind of ‘return’ we will ever have access to is a calculated re-imagining, never quite the same, because of the intent behind it – and, when taken to extremes, that kind of denial leads to shallowness of meaning and toxic stagnation. Which is kind of the point of the story.
And makes for bad art.
This film took something old and beloved and turned it into something both new and old, a forward-looking throwback. It’s like taking that old idea for a story that once upon a time meant so much to you, and not being quite able to remember why, but finding something in it that does still speak to you, and running with that, to tell the story that you, now, need to tell.
And seriously I’m not trying to bash on people who didn’t like the film, for whatever reason. There’s no accounting for taste; it’s not something anybody should have to be held accountable for, unless they use it to justify hurting other people or something. I defend this film and the artistic choices Baz made as a director, but I’m not saying that this film was a brilliant piece of art that will or should be remembered for all time – I very much enjoyed it, but other than Leo continuing his return to form and how surprisingly nice it was to see Tobey Maguire again after Emo Spiderman, a few very nice visuals and the inspired soundtrack, this film didn’t feel like anything particularly significant to me as a whole. Also, postmodernity is the biggest fad I’ve ever heard of; I got thoroughly sick of it after a year of studying Arts, and much as I often enjoy Baz’s employment of it (this film being no exception), I’ll be glad when it’s over. But for now, right now, I think it fits. Things get dated, from art to opinions. It’s a sign that we’ve moved on. And we can’t help moving on.
And that’s a good thing.
Speaking of which, I’m going to finally see Man of Steel tonight, because living in New Zealand means that Gastby hasn’t even been out a month in cinemas here, so at least MoS was a little more punctual. Still, for a dude who can fly so fast he can turn back time, I’m a little disappointed. And while I appreciate the ‘grittier’, more ‘realistic’ feel they seem to be going for with this version of Superman, because the main reason I don’t like Superman is because he’s so unrelatable, I can’t help but be wary of the possibility that they’ve brought him too down-to-Earth. He is Superman, after all. He’s not meant to be one of us.
Old work can never be new. But it can still hold something that remains relevant to us, the ones who did that work when it meant something different to us.
And that kind relevance is always worth keeping.