Revisitation Rites

Eric Howerton

Nov 07, 2011

As writers I think it's fairly common for us to revisit our own work from time to time, reading what we've read in the past and feeling either elation ("Hey, this isn't half bad!") or despair ("I can't believe I ever thought this was good.") or some odd mix of the two. Revisiting stories, essays or poems we wrote years before can give us a sense of progress, nostalgia, relief, maturation, revulsion, what have you--it can run the gamut from good to bad, uplifting and dispiriting. Case in point, I recently read an aborted version of this very blog post, which I started last year around this time but abandoned out of a combination of end-of-the-semester frustration and general brain lassitude. In the earlier draft of this post I discovered a line that was so ill-conceived I wondered what I could have been thinking when I wrote it. The line read: "Help! This book is like a casserole!" It was a line that today I would excise without a second thought. Or would I? Even though the line appeared in an earlier draft of this post, I have since found a way to keep it in a revised version of the same post! Regardless, I still have no idea what the line was supposed to mean when I wrote it or if it means anything at all in the present. Maybe it means I have/had a phobia of potluck dishes that heavily feature canned soup or French's onions. Maybe it means the book I was writing about at the time (C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) was uninspired and bland, which is how I generally tend to think of the casseroles. Whatever it means, I'm relieved that "Help! This book is like a casserole!" was a confusing package of words my 30-year-old mind knew to leave by the wayside. Revisiting yourself as a writer naturally happens whenever you tackle the practice of revision. In my experience, revision generally follows on the heels of finishing a draft of a story or poem, so the distance we have from the work we're revising might not necessarily be as wide as the growing distance we have from work already published ("It's done!" we might think. "No need to revise this puppy ever again.") or work that we've abandoned ("Not even revision can save this ill-conceived story I started 10 years ago."). In a certain respect revision is in itself a practice of revisiting yourself: I tramp over the lines/paragraphs/passages/stories that an earlier version of me wrote until I feel that I, as the author, am a presence--a houseguest, if you will--who's worn out his welcome. When I'm finishing up a story I'm often struck with the sensation that if I stick around any longer I'm liable to break something valuable or generally muck things up. In this way, revising is like borrowing a friend's apartment for the weekend. When it's time to go, you have to remove the noticeable traces of yourself before locking up. To continue the metaphor: When you can't leave a story well enough alone, when you revise it endlessly, it's like you've left something in the apartment that you have to go back and retrieve, or you remember a spill you're not sure you mopped up properly so you want to go back and clean it up. Revisiting earlier work can help remind you who you were when you were writing it, but there are other types of revisiting our past relationships with writing that I'm interested in here that have little to do with reading your own published work or taking on the labor of crafting. Finishing a story can feel like a bittersweet affair--there's the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing the work, but at the same time finishing can feel like a deep and meaningful relationship is about to undergo a seismic shift. The story that you developed from little more than a fleck of an idea--the story you nourished, enlivened, and fleshed out--becomes the aloof cat sitting on the back of the sofa with half-cocked lids, sporting a look that says, "Don't fool yourself into thinking I still need you, buddy." In the past year I've noticed an expanding circle of ways in which I revisit my relationship with writing, though I'll just talk about one of them here. This circle has involved more than just going back and reading stories from my high school and undergraduate days--a period in which much of what I wrote rehashed elements from A Clockwork Orange, Fight Club, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and whatever was playing on Adult Swim at the time. Needless to say when I read my old stories about hyper-violent quantum physicists and families of anthropomorphized onions, I have mixed reactions to both form and content. Some of these emotions leave me feeling satisfied because I can trace the lineage of consistent themes or ideas that have always troubled me and that I've continued to write about. Others leave me astonished that I managed to spend so much time on projects that now seem so irreconcilably juvenile, though to not laugh at the premises would be to admit that I've become stodgy and dull in my "old age" or that I've shunned the childish pleasure I get from absurdly juxtaposing ideas that normally don't go together. Others leave me somewhat uneasy, especially when encountering something I wrote that now strikes me as insensitive, offensive, or ignorant. But this post is about gratification, and one of the most satisfying ways in which the circle of understanding has widened came from revisiting myself not as a writer, but as a reader. Last winter I picked up a box of books that I'd been storing in my parents' garage for close to a decade. In the box I found books that I'd read in elementary school, middle school, and high school. As I unpacked the box and arranged the titles on my book shelf, I naturally began to leaf through some of them and I soon became more engrossed than I could have predicted. Not having seen the books in over ten years, I didn't think they'd still have such an effect over me. I was wrong about the books. The more I read the more I remembered how much I'd enjoyed reading them as a child. But what was more, reading them as an adult bowled me over and revealed more about my own writing than I could have ever predicted. There were two authors in particular whose works shouted out to me even after all these years: Roald Dahl and Bill Watterson. Roald Dahl is the well-known Norwegian author of books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, and Watterson wrote and drew the Calvin and Hobbes comic for over a decade. Both were hugely popular in the 1980s, feature wildly imaginative story lines, and often dealing with philosophical themes by treating them lightly and absurdly. As soon as I saw Dahl's novels and Watterson's comics I spent hours poring over them, and I was surprised to find that not only did I find nearly as much satisfaction from them as an adult as I did when I was a child, but the satisfaction wasn't all that different. The clichéd way to end this post would be to reminisce about a childhood spent reading books and to advocate that you try to write literature that makes you feel the way you felt when you were a child. But that's not really what this post is about. Rather, I think this post is about understanding why you are the writer you are, and part of that is knowing which works--not strictly those from your childhood, but from all times of your life--are the ones that have the potential to affect you again and again. Whether you're actively reading these works or not, in a way you are always surrounded by them. In revisiting Road Dahl and Calvin and Hobbes I found so much of myself in them as a writer that it was, to be honest, curious at times to see how my work paralleled theirs. (I say "curious," but who among us is really above the anxiety of influence?) Certain stories of mine can now be seen as reactions or continuations of Calvin's fantasies as Spaceman Spiff, and I see Dahl's anti-adult tendencies as being analogous to my own concerns with authority and government. Of course, there exists a whole list of novelists whose works weren't meant for children who I feel that I'm reacting to in the same way I react Dahl and Watterson, but I don't need to go into that now. The point I want to emphasize, or maybe the question I want to ask, is how much we really change more as readers and writers as the years pass, whether the events that happen to us really shape our interests all that much? Or if an interest, once shaped, retains its shape over time? Revisiting what we've written and what we've read can have profound effects on the writer we see ourselves having become, while at the same time the revisitations can instill in us the opposite feeling: that becoming itself--the change from one state of being into another--is just an illusion. In this way, we are always the same writer and the same reader, or at the very least we are a continuation of the writer and reader we were. Maybe as writers we're only ever trying to satisfy the readers we were. Or maybe as readers we're always trying to please the writer we want to be. Either way, the reader I was at 30 knew that "Help! This book is casserole!" wasn't a great big mess of aline, and so he left it alone; yet the writer I am at 31 managed to use that line three separate times. I'm at a point as a reader/writer where I think I've done the line justice (even at the disservice of my own reputation!) and with that I can excuse myself from the imaginary apartment I've been mucking about, confident that everything is in its right place. On my way out I'll double-check for spills before locking the bolt from the outside and confidently sliding the key under the door.