My family is finally getting rid of an old computer we’ve had for years and I’ve been combing through the documents on it, trying to determine if there’s anything worth saving. This is an old relic of a computer. It’s bulky and solid, and when I forced it to boot up last week, for the first time in years, it wheezed ominously. I had a brief flashback to the Flintstones because it almost sounded like a little critter was inside trying to power the computer through sheer physical energy.
This computer has a lot of my old school reports and essays on it, and I hate to think of the agonizing hours I spent picking just the right words to describe the colonial revolution because now the results of those hours are going to be deleted permanently. I can almost see the specter of my past self sitting at the desk with a word-choice headache and a half-finished essay. I want to reach out to her and say “you know, that perfectionism is going to be a real pain in the ass in college,” and “you can sit here until 11 obsessing, but you’ll just end up deleting this essay in five or six years.” That’s a bit doom and gloom though, so I guess I could also throw in something reassuring, like “don’t worry, you will get a good grade on this” or the more helpful “don’t worry, in college you’ll obsess over your writing but be accompanied by gallons of grown-up coffee and hours of laughter from your roommate.”
Besides school stuff, this is also the computer that had the duty of storing my early attempts at creative writing. I’m talking poems written when I was in middle school, and short stories from high school that were slightly dark and more than a bit wobbly–like the moody drunk that everyone avoids. I feel actual, physical pain when I read some of these pieces because I can remember feeling inspired enough to write them, thinking that I really had something, and the truth of the matter is: they’re just not that good. And yes, this was years ago and I was in high school and you really can’t expect anything good to come out of high school. I know. But still, it’s more than a little disheartening to read these bits of writing and realize that it was no great tragedy that they were locked away on our family’s ancient computer for years and years. In fact, maybe that plastic block was containing them for my own good, acting as a sort of asylum for the creatively deformed.
I consider Anne Lamott a patron saint for aspiring writers. Read her book Bird by Bird and just try not to be motivated and inspired. Bird by Bird is my bible, my self-help book, my continual aha moment. I am currently rereading it, because Ms. Lamott herself is going to be speaking at a nearby bookstore this week and I plan to make the pilgrimage to hear her talk about her new book. (I regret that I have not read her new book, but it’s on my ever-growing, ever-lovin’ To-Read list!) I am SO excited about this book event. It’s the same level of excitement that someone else might experience for a concert or when meeting a movie star. Anyway, one of the chapters in Bird by Bird is called “Shitty First Drafts,” and it is the sole reason why I have not sentenced my old creative writing to be deleted and forgotten. “For me and most of the other writers I know,” Lamott says, “writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
I am saving those old pieces of writing, poor souls that they are, because it occurred to me that they might be really, really shitty first drafts. And that’s a good thing! Maybe, beneath and between the awful transitions and stiff dialogue, there’s a gem of a sentence or a character that’s desperate to be developed. (“Make me three-dimensional!”) I’m definitely going to find whatever hidden treasure awaits because, as part of this file conservation process, I have to re-type the horrendous poems and short stories of my high school days onto my laptop. See, the old clunker computer only has a slot for floppy disks (USBs were a distant dream when it was made), but a floppy would do me no good when it came time to transfer the documents. (My nice, relatively new laptop has never even heard of a floppy disk, although, I do happen to have a few that have been saved from being tossed out thanks to the what-if-I-need-it-someday philosophy.) So I’m being forced to confront my old words as I transfer their ugliness to a new computer. It’s possible there is a more efficient way to go about this, but at least this way I am reading and typing and thinking and mentally calculating possibilities and ideas. I am trying to be loyal to the originals, trying not to automatically edit as I re-type, because then I’ll get bogged down and lose the whole point of the exercise and probably miss anything worth saving.
I imagine that Future-Me is looking at Now-Me and nodding in approval, or maybe saying “Don’t worry, it’s for the best—you’re gonna want to save your old words, no matter how cringe-y they are. Wonderful, beautiful new words will follow!” That’s nice. I like Future-Me. But then, that’s to be expected. I imagine Future-Me is very wise and patient and happy and successful and has great hair with a part that isn’t crooked.
Or, she’s working on Now-Me’s shitty first drafts and is miserable and wants company and expects Now-Me to have to deal with Past-Me’s shitty first drafts. Wow. Future-me is sadistic.