Sam van Zweden




The benefits of reading your old work

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Image source: Flickr CC / turinboy


Grief has had me in its clutches, after saying goodbye to a dear friend last week. While I wish I could say that I’ve mastered grief over the last year or so – that I’ve overcome it, or learned how to do it better – I haven’t. I have, however, become a little bit familiar with its tendency to multiply emotion – not just sadness, but everything. So this morning’s ‘difficult morning’ was less of a stumble and more of a head-first pitch down the mountain.

But this post isn’t about grief. It’s about reminding yourself that you are capable, and the value of looking backwards. It’s about how calming and useful that can be.

I had planned, today, to work on two things. One is the long-suffering outline for my book, which I’m trying to put together to form a more comprehensive overview of where the project is going and what its priorities are. The other project for today was to work on an essay for Antic Magazine, about the composition of memory. I got most of the way through the day and had despaired over the first of these projects (I will never get this done, or I will get it done and I’ll fail horribly), before taking a break and sifting through some work from three years ago.

It’s not just nostalgia. I’ve written at length before about memory, and particularly about the elements of memory that I’m wanting to put into this new essay. As the old work was written for school, it’s entirely up for cannibalism.

See, this is a regular practice of mine. Revisiting old, possibly even ‘failed’ work, has a few benefits.

It reminds me that I’m competent. Old work that has been published reminds me that I’m capable of working on something to publication standard. Beyond just preening, this opens something up inside my brain – You are able to do this. You have done this before. It’s an exercise in self esteem.

Old work that is unpublished is rarely entirely useless, and because nobody’s read it, I get to pull out salvageable content for use in a new project. And what I can use right now in this project might be quite different to what I can use in another project, and over a length of time, bits and pieces get pulled out and used across a number of new projects.

And, published or unpublished, old work reminds me of an old frame of mind. Particularly academic work toward major projects – it reminds me of ways of doing things. While I was fishing for quotes and angles on memory, I also came across a way of articulating guiding questions in an annotated bibliography, which has translated into guiding questions in my book outline.

Keep your old work on hand, and go through it regularly. Fish out what’s handy to you now, and put the rest aside for later, because what you’re looking for will change. It’s like cooking with left-overs, or patching jeans with bits of old pairs of jeans. These things can be reinvented. No work is useless.

At a time when looking backwards is something that’s taking up a lot of my energy, it’s all in keeping.

Reading As A Priority

In his essay, Why Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa talks about how it’s a bit disgusting that reading is regarded as an indulgent pass-time. Literature is important, says Llosa, not just as a means of escape or relaxation (though these are still some of the many great functions of reading), but as a tool which promotes an engaged and lively society. And for writers, reading is especially important – how can we expect to be great writers if we aren’t also great readers?

As at the start of every year, there’s been a lot of goal-setting happening over the last few days. My online writing group has seen everyone’s goals updated, and one person’s goals in particular really interested me. It involved adding more structure to their writing day – something I’m always trying to do. I was inspired by the fact that a full writing day for them involved three hours of reading and four hours of writing on any given day. This struck me as similar to the “Writer’s Diet” (which I saw attributed to John Birmingham, but now can’t find anywhere) – this involved four hours’ reading and four hours’ writing daily. Ambitious, yes, but a totally worthy goal. I’m not saying that to be a good writer you need to read for x hours, and write for x hours, or you’re falling short. I’m just saying that for me, and for a lot of people I know, these kind of goals usually result in tangible improvements in our work.

So part of my writing goal this year is to make reading a priority again. Toward the end of 2012 it became something I did in spare time, on public transport or lunch breaks, or to unwind before bed. While all these things are still optional and will probably still be good reading time for me, I’m making reading an important part of my writing day.

Having read about 60 pages this morning in two hours (slow reader, yes), 100+ Books seems more achievable than ever, my “to be read” pile is cowering in terror, and I will be the most informed writer I can possibly be. Without understanding writing from both perspectives (reader and writer), I can hardly expect to get any better.

It’s a Process

The word “process” implies some sort of replicable ritual, something which can be followed to the end to get results. The sad truth, alas, is that usually it doesn’t all go down in the right order, it’s usually heavily punctuated with coffee, washing, or walks to the library, and it often lacks really satisfying results. Creating a ritual around my writing is important, but perhaps the most helpful part of that ritual is when it doesn’t go to plan.

While walking through the cemetery early this week, I discovered the Springthorpe Memorial. It really moved me, but I had no idea how I could use that. I came home and executed some boring pages about nothing much.

Next evening, I was playing with the magnetic poetry-makers on my fridge and came up with the following, which I somehow feel was inspired by the character of Sonmi-451 in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The poem read:
“How the monkey did wander
but sad.”

I wrote that down, because it made me sad.

The next morning I started working on a poem about the Springthorpe Memorial, using the idea of sad wandering, and talking about the fierce angels which guard the doctor’s “O Sweetheart Mine”. I’ve been researching all the sculptors who created the many statues around Melbourne, and I have no idea where that’s going to go but it seems useful.

And that’s the trajectory of just one piece. Just one piece which is still unfinished, so the “process” which guides me to the end of it may take a bunch of twists and turns along the way. The point is that I planned time to write about the Springthorpe Memorial, and it was balls. This doesn’t mean that I think getting up and making myself write is balls – far from, I find it very important. But in this case, the unplanned stuff was my way in – it was helpful.

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