The Awkward Friends of Yesteryear

There’s a common story trope that begins with a main character being enamored by some mentor character, viewing this master as the most wise, most respected, and most powerful of role models, the very person that the protagonist wishes to become like. As the story continues, though, experience, enhanced perspective, and even skepticism develop in the main character until that rosy view of the mentor becomes challenged. The protagonist realizes that the mentor is actually the town fool, is considered quaint or even insane, and laughed at for the same grandiose claims that the protagonist had always found so enchanting. In Mary Poppins, is Bert the clever and talented friend Jane and Michael Banks see him as, or the dirty, uneducated bum that adults judge him to be? The resolution of this conundrum may vary from one story to another, but quite commonly the protagonist settles on a balance of the two perspectives. Perhaps the mentor isn’t as perfect as had been initially thought, but still has meant well and has genuine nuggets of value that the masses are wrong to ignore.

I’ve been jotting away at my stories for over 15 years now, and the cycle of my feelings towards them is pretty perfectly represented by this common narrative mechanic. When I first write a new work I tend to be amazed at the cleverness of my ideas and take pride in how well I am capturing each desired visual and emotion. As I finish I have the deep satisfaction of success, and I can only conceive of the story being received exactly as how I had intended. With every rereading immediately afterwards I seem to find something else to like about my work, and it takes on an almost mythical status to me.

Over time, though, my perspective tends to become more cynical. Scenes I considered profound now seem to be taking themselves way too seriously, well-rounded characters have become flatter, and all the pacing falls entirely out of step. Everything is so rushed, so melodramatic, so unearned. All I can see now are the mistakes. What’s more, they are the same mistakes I had made in prior stories that I was already aware of! One of my favorite blunders to make is not accounting for how much slower writing is than reading. Spend an hour writing battle scene and you’ll feel that you’ve crafted one of the most epic sequences ever penned. Read it back in a tenth of the time and it barely amounts to a little skirmish. Why do I fall for that illusion every time?

Still later, though, when I’m far enough removed from authoring the story that I don’t feel so embarrassed by it, I’m able to view it in a kinder light. Sure, the craftsmanship is still poorly wrought, but I was young and didn’t know what I was doing. And even though some parts remain so bad that they make me cringe, I am now able to accept that there also remain a few treasures that shine as brightly as ever. I come to realize that while the good parts don’t make up for the bad, neither do the bad parts spoil the good, each can be appreciated separately and individually. At this point I usually realize that I’m still very much in love with the original idea that sparked the entire work. Perhaps I’ve become disillusioned with the trappings I dressed that idea up with, but the core still remains a good one.

Right now, every story I still am in the honeymoon stage with each of the stories I’ve written for this blog. I feel great pride in each of them and consider them my finest work to date. That’s not to say I don’t see any flaws in them, I certainly do, but those flaws seem to be such minor actors that I can easily ignore them. I don’t expect this enchantment to last, though, sooner or later those errors are going to take center stage and I’ll start to think that I ought to delete these posts for shame of having them connected to my name. If there is anything that prevents me from doing so, it will be the hope that leaving them in all their hideous glory will provide a paper trail of my growth and improvement as a writer.

And then, still later, I will revisit the old stories and admit that their core ideas still mean a great deal to me. I may apologize to those seeds for having fashioned them such unworthy bodies that got in the way of their natural beauty. As away to make amends I might extract and enclothe them in a more fitting vessel. Having both the old and the new versions would have the added benefit of giving a clear metric for exactly how far I have improved in my craftsmanship. And then I would be proud and enamored with my work all over again.

Of course not all of my stories falls under this pattern, there are always the exceptions. Some of my work I simply lose all interest in immediately and can find no beating heart that needs saving. Other pieces, very few, remain just as captivating to me no matter how long since writing. The very first story I posted on this blog, Caterpillars, was one of these. I first conceived of and wrote it eight years ago and, perhaps due to its simplicity, I have felt very little need to change it in all the time since. The version that I uploaded for this blog remains very consistent to that original work. During that very same year I also had an idea for a story about a small girl’s toy jester, a little doll that comes to life and has a sobering experience with the loss of innocence. That one has not aged so well, its main failing being one of “overdoing it” with the main themes. I do still like the core idea, though, and I’d like to try to give it a more nuanced treatment. Come back Thursday and I will present the refashioned work, then explain the differences between the new and original forms, and how I feel about each of them.

Until then, I encourage you to revisit any old stories that you might have written off as childish or clumsy. Ask yourself, past all the schmaltz and the awkwardness are their cores still able to ring true? If so, they may just need a reimagining to bring them to their proper glory. Your moments of creative inspiration deserve the best that you can give them, and the fact that you can recognize your earlier shortcomings is the evidence that you are finally ready to do them better justice. Go and see just how much you’ve improved.

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