I know I’m not the only one. I know it has happened to you too. It happened to one of my clients just the other day. We have been working together for over a year now on a project which is almost ready to be published. As we were discussing the final stages of the work, she said to me:
“When I look back now at the draft I first sent to you, I am so embarrassed by it.”
I had to laugh, because I’ve been there too and so have you. Sometime or another, we have all read back over something we wrote a week, a month or a few decades ago, and yes, we are embarrassed by it. And so we should be.
That is what I said to my client, the moment I stopped laughing. I told her it was wonderful that she felt embarrassed about her earlier writing, because it shows how much she has developed since then. Over the past year, both her voice and her vision for her book have become clearer, keener, more precise and more refined. Her style has changed and she has become more confident, which is a beautiful thing.
I remember once hearing the Australian writer Peter Carey give a reading of his work at a literary festival. He began, inauspiciously enough, with an apology for any awkward pauses that might occur during his reading.
“I can’t read my own work in public without wanting to change some bit of it,” he explained.
Know the feeling?
I can’t help thinking that editors are particularly guilty of this proclivity to want to revise everything they have ever written, but my guess is that most writers are susceptible to it. We could choose to read this discomfort as evidence that we are genuinely inept at our craft. Or we could see that our tastes change, our talents evolve and our insight into our written expression alters over time.
That is not to say, however, that there is anything wrong with revisiting some earlier work only to find ourselves pleasantly surprised by a deft turn of phrase, an arresting metaphor or the sincere emotion evoked by our prose. It doesn’t mean we have not advanced beyond that shining moment; only that there are times in our lives when we write with a certain elusive grace, and that we sometimes cannot truly see the beauty in our words until our eyes and minds are older.
Either way, I encourage you, as I did with my client, to embrace your embarrassment but let yourself find delight in your own writing too. You are allowed both to be proud and to progress.
That is, in fact, exactly what you need to do.
Go on, admit it. You’re among friends here, so go ahead and share the story of some occasion on which you glanced back at a piece of your writing and felt that little bit of a cringe inside. Or, if you prefer, tell the tale of a time when your words filled you with a flush of pleasure. I’d really love to hear it.