When to Go Back, When to Let Go?

Today, I am answering another Burning QuestionJessica asked about finding the balance between going back to old work or letting it go.  Messyoffice She had read an author state that old work is the work of a younger you and you should move on from it.  On the other hand, she'd also read interviews with many an author who spoke of working on a novel for years, setting it aside and then returning to it.  So which approach is best?

Funny you should ask that, Jessica, as I've been spending spare moments working on organizing my office.  A huge part of that chore has been to go through all my old work.  I had stacks and folders and binders full of old stories, my MFA novel, and some half-completed projects.  I also had even higher stacks of notes pertaining to these stories.

I put this off for weeks.  I didn't want to face it, because I knew that it was time to let go of a lot of this stuff.  (Note the photo of some of it piled on my office floor yesterday.)  But finally, I screwed up my courage and did it.  I was able to be ruthless, dumping most of the notes into the recycling bin. This was, after all the point.  I'd been feeling as if all this old stuff was pinning me down, that the collective weight of the unfinished work was preventing new ideas from coming through.  So I chucked much of it.

However–and this is a big however–I carefully put a copy of every old story, and the novel, into binders. I wanted to honor the work that I've done, the writer that I've been.  As I did this, I re-read some of the stories.  Most of them felt to me very much like the work of a younger writer and parts of them made me cringe.  But some of them made me want to read more.  The glimmer of interest was still there.  If I were to write the story today, I'd write it much differently, perhaps even choose different characters, but the kernel that led me to the page was still compelling to me.  I re-read bits and pieces of that old novel and subsequently entertained myself in my journal this morning by writing about how I would re-imagine this book if I ever decided to go back to it.

So my answer to the question of when to let go and when to go back is, it depends. I think that this is gong to be a very personal decision, and while some people are perfectly comfortable going back to a project, others might not be.  But here are some guidelines to help you in that decision:

When you look back over an old story or project,

  • Is there a spark? 
  • Does your heart leap?
  • Does your brain immediately engage?
  • Are you hooked into the narrative in any way?

If the answer to any one of these questions is yes, you might want to spend a little time exploring the old story and see where it leads.  Just go back to it and see what happens, without expectation.  Fool around a bit and see how you feel.  If it doesn't go anywhere, fine, nothing is lost.  (That's the great thing about writing–nothing is ever lost.  Ever.)

But if you answered no to these questions, then the answer is clear.  There's no oomph left in the project for you.  File it away and forget about it.  Let the space it took up in your brain be filled with new stories, books and ideas.

So that is my take on when to let go and when to go back.  What do you guys think?  Anyone have any good or bad experiences with going back to an old project?

8 thoughts on “When to Go Back, When to Let Go?”

  1. Wow, perfect timing for me on this one, Charlotte. I was just having this conversation last night with my husband about the first and second drafts of the “book” that I wrote (which was never completed and only ever used in workshops). I put it aside about two years ago, and I can’t quite get back to it. I think it’s because I have changed a lot, and some of the things I wrote about I don’t really believe in anymore. And hopefully I’ve improved my writing as well. I like this idea of taking what I need form it, and putting the rest aside. I adore this too – “nothing is ever lost.” Makes me feel like no matter what happens, it will all be good. Thanks!

  2. Hi Charlotte,
    A few weeks ago I opened my filing cabinet and pulled out a few bulging folders full of old work. Yes, some of the writing made me cringe too but I could remember how good it sounded at the time. To make sure it wasn’t just me having a down on myself, I took one or two of the short stories to my writing group and read them out. They sounded just as bad! One of the guys who had been in the class when I had written this stuff said diplomatically, “Yes, it’s surprising how improved we are as writers now”. The experience more or less confirmed my belief that it was time to throw it aay.

    Looking at Patty’s post above, it seems as if you have really “tuned into” your blog readers today. During zazen (Zen meditation) this morning, I was very aware of the fact that my mind was clinging to the past, trying to resolve things – all trivial thoughts that was stealing my awareness during my zazen. I wonder how many more readers will feel that there’s a synchronicity going on.

  3. Thank you for this lovely balanced article. Your piles of paper look so exciting! I love big thick manuscripts. 🙂

    You make very good points. As with most writing, it seems to be the emotional response to the project which is most important. You have to feel a connection and feel excitement about it because it’s that feeling (far more than the intellectual side of things) which will carry you through.

    While reading through your post, it also occurred to me that the way you approach the project makes a difference. If you’re looking to take the exact words you wrote and try to fiddle around with them, then chances are you’ll get bogged down in the ‘other writer’s’ weaknesses and mistakes. If instead you take the concept or the character or the scene and set about it with your fresh tools and skills, perhaps even writing from scratch, you’re more likely to make a success of it.

    Thanks again. I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my question.

  4. Patty, It it so amazing to me to go back to my old novel and see how much it reflects who I was when I wrote it and how different I am now. If I do return to it, I’ll make such huge changes that it will essentially be a different book.

    Derek, I love your thought on synchronicity, and I laughed and laughed about you reading your stories to your writing group and them diplomatically telling you how much you had improved.

    Jessica, Thanks for asking the question in the first place, it was a really good one. And I loved your spin on taking old work and approaching it with fresh tools and skills.

  5. Five years ago a small publisher wanted to publish one of my children’s books called “The Case of the One-Eyed, One-Arm, One-Legged, Pink-Belly-Button, Swamp Goonie”, but I was simply too sick, at the time, to do the final copy, so it still sits there to this very day!

    I don’t want to go back to finishing it, but then again, I don’t want to just let it sit there too much longer or then I’ll end up having a broken heart in addition to my sick liver! Ah, I know it’s my own damn fault for drinking so much water and milk! Thankfully, I never touch the hard stuff like tea, coffee and that cursed thing known as soda pop! Then I really would be up the creek without a paddle.

    Hopefully, as my health improves and my fatigue levels return to normal, I too shall return to finishing it, even though I hate going back to old things for the reasons that you describe above, but, however, thanks for to your post, it gives me some encouragement to do so.

  6. Don, I’m glad that your health is improving. And in your case, it does sound like your story was pretty much ready to go, which I think makes a difference. You won’t have to spend a lot of time revising it–maybe? Please keep us posted on how it goes!

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