Friday, September 16, 2005

To Recur. To Recur. To Recur. To Recur.

There's a very dangerous pitfall in the world of writing, and it involves working the same bit multiple times.

I try to think of myself as a creative person. To put it in as straight a manner as possible, I believe that I'm inventive enough to come up with new concepts and ideas regardless of any situation. In fact, I thrive on new stuff. I like new stuff, and I like to think that everybody deserves new stuff.

Late last year, I was put in touch with a Singaporean publishing company that was interested in printing one of my short stories. While that's obviously a good thing, what was strange was the fact that they specifically asked about a piece of work I had turned out five or six years ago.

I'm sure that the experienced writers will be familar with my apprehensions here. A writer's style, I believe, constantly goes through a process of evolution -- in a way, the more you write, the more your pacing, diction, characterization, wording, and other aspects will change. As a writer, you will inevitably feel that your new stuff has the potential of being better than your old stuff. And even if it doesn't turn out that way, you still won't be able to shake that feeling off.

In this case, I had written the piece -- a short fantasy entitled Here There Be Humans! -- as a submission for my college literary journal back in 1999. I had since relegated it to the woodpile, leaving it somewhere in the middle of a tall, precarious stack of previous works. The last thing I expected, after all, was for a magazine to ask for something I had long since "shelved".

A lot of writers hate going through their previous works, and I am no exception to the rule. There's just something negative about digging up a past composition, because it'll always represent you at a time when you were less mature, less skilled, less... contemporary. As a writer, you'll always feel that anything you can write at the present will literally be a whole lot better than anything you wrote in the past.

Personally, I don't listen to writers who dwell on past works, no matter how good those creations may be. I feel that an author who does not understand the need to constantly best his or her past efforts has no idea how it feels to write.

This, however, leads to an obvious dilemma: How does one bear the prospect of reprinting an old, outdated work? These things may look quite fresh from the magazine's point of view, but believe me, they will look pretty stale from where you stand.

I pulled out the original manuscript, read it again, and hated it immediately. I only had one thought in mind at the time, and it was "How could I have written this @#$%! stuff?" I would have crammed it back into the woodpile, had it not been for the fact that a gushing Singaporean editor doesn't ask you for one of your short stories every day.

I've always found it strange when people submit old works for perusal. I suppose that they'll indeed seem "new" as long as one presents them to an unfamiliar audience... and in fact, now that I think about it, this is why classic literary works are able to maintain their shine through multiple generations of readers. But for the life of me, I will probably never understand why some authors dwell on the past in this way. Do they just want to raise the spectres of old accolades? Do they mean to look to previous writings for inspiration? Do they only intend to fill some empty space?

I eventually reached a compromise with the Singaporean publishers, and I spent the next two evenings polishing and repolishing the story. By the time I wrapped it up and sent it off, it was almost unrecognizably brand-spanking new. They sounded pretty delighted with the result, and I breathed the stereotypical long sigh of relief in response.

I suppose that it's perfectly all right to see one of your old stories in print again. There are some pieces, I think, that are so good that they bear repeating. But I also think that part of the equation involves exactly how one feels about old works to begin with, and perhaps that can be seen as one of the measures of a writer. If you're a writer, you keep writing. Out with the old, and in with the new.

Recursion is for the uncreative, I say.


Dominique said...

Well, you can't keep a good tale down....

Sean said...

*Sigh* I still think of it as just an old story. :(

I'm thankful for the recommendation, though, Dominique. It wouldn't have pushed through without your presence. :)

banzai cat said...

I don't know: I always thought that re-editing is usually the fun part of the editing process... especially if some time has passed to make you see the piece in a new light.

Congrats though. :-)

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