On “retired” writing

I’m sick now, too. I haven’t gotten used to this aspect of parenting yet: sicknesses that start in the youngest member of the household and then spread. I’m not really sure why it surprises me so; I spent last week wiping my son’s nose, cajoling him to eat, and squeezing a dropper of medicine into his mouth. He was miserable, and kept laying his head down on my lap, or my shoulder, wiping his nose and his mouth on my clothes. In his more playful moments, he tried to put his (no doubt germ-ridden) fingers in my mouth.

For some reason when I’m taking care of him, I feel invincible. Sort of. I’ve got 36 years worth of built-up immunity on him, right? At the same time, I washed my hands a lot last week. I suppose it was inevitable: By Friday night, my throat ached, and by Sunday evening I had all the symptoms my son had had a week earlier. My husband now has the sore throat, too, as does our childcare provider and the other family we share her with. My dog alone seems immune, and stares at me expectantly, waiting to go out, or for a meal, just like he always does.

I feel too sick to leave the house today, and have been trying to write, or at least think about writing, instead. Taking it easy does not exclude writing, or at least that’s what I’ve been trying to tell myself. But I’ve spent most of the day reading over old work. It started out innocently enough — I’ve been considering sending out an excerpt from my MFA thesis (again). It’s a chapter from the book that I turned into a stand-alone essay. I sent it out for a while just after completing my MFA and then I stopped. In fact, the essay was not badly received. I mean, I have a pile of rejections on my desk, but many of them are what I would describe as “nice” rejections — “no thanks, but please submit to us again” — those kind of rejections. I took the rejections harder than I should have.

At some point I put my book up on a shelf and I haven’t touched it in nearly two years. I mean that literally, though the electronic files are also gathering dust in the far corners of my hard drive. I put the printed pages in a special box, and I closed the lid. It sits on top of my office bookshelf, like a monument.

I decided somewhere along the way that the book was no good and that a couple of chapters, maybe, could be salvaged and sent out as stand-alone pieces. I suppose that what I’m getting at here relates back to my previous post, about editing and self-confidence. In my last post I wondered about how you ever know whether you’ve revised enough to send something out. Jade Park had a thoughtful post about rejection recently, in which she mentioned “retiring” a short story that got rejected “a kazillion” times. I wondered when reading that, how do we know when to “retire” a piece of writing?

And I’ve been wondering if “retirement” is permanent. I suspect not. I think that some pieces of writing need a lot of time to percolate. New life vantage points — age, relationships, jobs, etc. — can impact the way you see what you wrote at a different time in your life. An essay of mine that was published last year was one I wrote a first draft of in 1998. I rewrote it several times over the next decade, each time from a new vantage point, and eventually, it got somewhere. If you had asked me in 1998 whether that essay would ever be published, I would have laughed. I saw it — even five years later — as a novice attempt at writing. I saw it as practice.

Ten years is a long time. I read through most of my book today, for the first time in two years. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered. But also, the parts I have long seen as salvageable need more work than I thought. For now, the bulk of the 270 pages are going to stay retired. I suspect that sometimes the pieces we leave gathering virtual dust in our hard drives are pieces we’ve overedited, or gotten bored with, or that we know deep in our hearts were practice for something else, something better. This is what I want to think about my book.

In the midst of my son’s fever, coughing, and runny nose last week, he learned to walk. He took a couple of steps unaided, then fell on his knees and crawled. Later he tried again. And later, again. Three steps turned into five, and the next day he was toddling around our living room. He wobbled and lurched and he held his arms out in front, uncertain. But he was walking.

Writing is a lot like that.


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