I save absolutely everything. Always.
The above picture is actually my stack of journals, starting in the year 2000 and spanning through today. I was 10 when I started writing, both fiction and in journals, and I have maintained the “wordsmithing” – and the paper hoarding – habit for the last fifteen years.
I have the very first words I ever wrote, still in a purple three-ring notebook from my 10th birthday. I have the 241 page Word document, printed and kept in a manila envelope, that forms the very first novel I never finished. I have ideas, scribbles, poems, quips, outlines, character sketches, manuscripts full of others’ notes, manuscripts full of my own notes.
I have short explosions of irritation, lengthy prayers for inspiration, “shorts” that mean absolutely nothing on their own but were the world to me at the time I wrote them.
I have wonderful beginnings, terrible endings, things I will never improve and things I never want to touch again.
Very few lucky (or unfortunate?) souls have ever been exposed to my writing drawer, even less than those who have peeked at my tower of journals. For me, having someone read something that I loved once long ago but never nurtured is one of the most vulnerable things imaginable – even worse than having someone read a work in progress, or a section I know needs some improvement. But I still keep these things. And here’s why.
1. Remember Your Own Character: The topics of our writing change with the seasons – through our rough patches, ecstatic moments, and into the normalcy of our day-to-day lives. Rereading through these saved scribbles can not only bring up nostalgic memories and deep emotions (and more often than not a good laugh or two), but it reminds us of the certain states of being in our past writing – who we were then, and who we may have forgotten. I’ve pulled more than one character out of my pile of words, having just been reminded of what a thirteen-year-old girl goes through in a new school.
2. Steal Your Own Work: I have yet to meet a writer who has completed every single short story or novel ever written. Sometimes we just have to get the short bursts of ideas out on paper, and once that’s done, the story falls apart in our hands. I have plenty of fantastic scenes with no driving plot, no future obstacle, or resolution whatsoever. These unfinished pieces, once left alone for one, two, or ten years, can be an incredible wealth of inspiration. Either pick it up and continue, or look for a line once written that resonates with you. There are no laws against plagiarizing your own work!
3. Be Your Own Role Model: I know all too well the hopelessness that comes with being stuck in a story, novel, or even a scene. It feels like I will never get through it – never push through with the right dialogue or the perfect one-word description. It’s easy to get discouraged when I’ve been working on a piece for months and it still seems to be going nowhere (even 20 pages later…). Sometimes, all it takes for me to get out of a little funk is to look at my bookshelf, overflowing with my favorite titles, and imagine one of my own books up there. If I need to go a little bit deeper, I’ll open a book and read a few pages. Sometimes the current novel I’m reading for fun will spark that flame, sometimes I need to go back to one of the classics on the “Kat’s Favorite Books” list and read a refreshingly brilliant passage. I was an avid reader far before I started writing. There are those moments, though, when I could look at books all day and only feel worse, only feel more discouraged and frustrated. That’s where the writing drawer works its magic.
There are moments when just the thought of trying to finish a piece hangs over my head like a guillotine. And then I open the drawer. Then I look at all the pages upon pages of words I’ve written, all the finished stories, chopped up stories, broken, polished, and dangling stories. I rifle through the pages, smell a few of the old notebooks (nothing beats the smell of written-on paper), hold the weight of them in my hands and remind myself that I have written far more words already, in everything put together, than it’s going to take me to finish whatever current project is being such a nuisance. And then, suddenly, what I have left doesn’t seem so daunting. I’ve already managed to write everything I see in my drawer, some of it effortlessly, some of it with a grimace of pain. But I still wrote them. They’re still there.
Using these pages of all my past work, for whatever purpose and to whatever end, is something I can’t imagine ever living without. Not to mention the fact that I have a very thick, invisible, steel cable that connects me to everything I’ve ever created. I’m a lot better about letting others read my work, about sharing what’s currently in progress and what’s finished, though I always make a copy for myself and stick it in the drawer.
Go ahead, look at your “writing pile”. What’s there? What do you remember? What surprises you? And if you haven’t started one, do it now. You can never know what treasures you may have crumpled up and tossed aside if you didn’t decide to take that scrap of paper out of the trash.