Yesterday I argued that you should throw away your darlings and never look at them again. It will probably come as no surprise to you that I don’t really follow that advice.
In my basement storage area I have a large box that contains old printed drafts of my books. There are early copies of my first novel Atlantia, half drafts from Dark Matter, and of course a ton of Surreality material. In the beginning I told myself I was saving this stuff for “security.” Wouldn’t want anyone stealing my ideas, after all. Later on I decided that these artifacts might be interesting to others if I ever became a big name author, stuff that new writers might even be able to learn from. Now I think it’s just a box I’ll have to run through the shredder at some point.
I have binders full of old stories, notebooks with handwritten ideas, original composition notebooks from 7th grade (first time I ever filled one of those things up with my own work), and countless other bits of detritus. And this doesn’t even begin to count my digital files. I have 6-7 drafts of Surreality each separately saved and available in eBook format. They were helpful when I was moving from draft to draft, and I never deleted them.
I occasionally thumb through this stuff, more for amusement than anything else. Sometimes I worry that I had all my best ideas in high school and that the rest of my life is being spent executing them. Looking back at old work provides pretty clear evidence this isn’t true, but it also makes me realize how long some ideas have been floating around in my head.
It’s interesting to see things you intended to put in a story, and never did. I write notes less because I intend to read them back, but more to move a thought to a different part of my memory. I think all of these details, even the ones that don’t make it to final page, inform the writer’s perception of the character. Keenan might have a weird love of Abba (because he’s y’know . . . human), but it’s a detail that might never be officially stated in a book. And yet I can keep writing him in scenes knowing that “Dancing Queen” is playing in his head.
And old work can reassure you that the core of the story is still there, and that you’ve improved upon it in the final draft. I reread the rough draft of Surreality when I finished my final edit. The process of revision can be exhausting, and often leave you wondering if you’ve really made things better, or if you’ve just changed them a bunch. Because it doesn’t always feel as fresh as the creative process, editing can leave you numb and less objective toward the work. Reading the old draft can be reassuring. You can see clear evidence that you kept the bits that mattered, and cut the junk away. Maybe you’ll find something you took out that deserves to be put back in, but more likely than not, looking back can show you that you’re moving forward in a good direction.
And while many old ideas and passages grow stale with time, others can take on new meaning. An idea I would have written one way a decade ago, might be something completely different now. And the converse is also true, something I thought was brilliant at the time can turn out to be a terrible idea now. Sometimes looking at old material shows us things about ourselves we’d rather not remember, blind-spots in our writing that hopefully we’ve matured enough to fix.
I still don’t exactly subscribe to the idea that saving old bits for later is good for writing new stories, but I think there’s a lot that can be learned from having this trove of old info to dig through. Every now and again I think it’s healthy to “take stock” of who you are as a writer, and where you want to go. These boxes of old material might be just the way to do it.