While having coffee with a friend last week, talking about our writing and what we’re working on, I realized I have several stories I wrote five, six or even seven years ago that I keep coming back to. I visit them from time to time, their characters still rattling around in my mind like old friends I haven’t seen in a while. I wondered, is it sad that after so much time I am still hung up on stories I wrote so long ago? Is it time to let them go, to move on?
I see every piece I write, regardless of whether or not it ever sees the light of day, as practice. Whether it is a short story I wrote in a workshop or a few pages written in a burst of inspiration, they are all part of the practice of writing. With each revision I am stretching my writing muscles, developing my plot a little deeper, breathing more life into my characters.
I can look back on the various drafts of these stories and see their progression and my growth as a writer. Though I originally wrote these stories several years ago, over that time, they have evolved. They have gone from first drafts written hastily in order to meet a deadline, to second drafts and third drafts, each one better than the last.
In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks about what she calls, composting:
“Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.”
Every story has value, it is all practice. It is compost for us to work with, none of it is wasted.
I save just about everything I write, including those little passages and pages written in a moment of insight that didn’t amount to much. Those are always fun to come back to; they are characters, scenes and moments in time that stay with me that may eventually turn into something more.
Those deleted scenes, discarded characters and unused settings are all part of that compost too.
My error is not that I have held on to these stories for too long; it is that I have neglected to bring any one of them to a stage of being polished and print ready. Rather than doing the hard work and editing necessary to finish them, each time I’ve returned to them I’ve left them in some state of in-completion.
If a piece no longer has movement, if there is nothing left I can do with a story to move it forward then perhaps, yes, it becomes time to “move on.” Until then, I will still think of them every now and again when I hear a particular turn of phrase or a certain song on the radio, and I’ll continue to work the soil.
Do you still return to poems or stories you wrote years ago? What keeps you coming back to them and how do you know when it is time to move on?