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Writers Give Themselves Feedback on their Old Books

As you work on creating your own writing, does it ever feel like the work of famous authors is at an inaccessible level? Does it ever seem like those writers you admire must just have the words flow out of them easily and naturally in a superior form? Well, be inspired and comforted by the linked article from Slate highlighting the comments left by several authors upon rereading their old works - and the lessons we can learn from those annotations. The self-analysis was part of the First Editions, Second Thoughts project, in which PEN America asked 61 writers and 14 artists to annotate their early works for a Dec. 2 auction at Christieโ€™s New York. The proceeds will go toward PENโ€™s cause of protecting โ€œfree expression for artists worldwide.โ€ Slate quotes author Paul Auster on the experience: โ€œI can say that it was probably the most bizarre act of writing Iโ€™ve ever been involved in.โ€ Other participants include Don DeLillo, Michael Chabon, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Tyler, Salman Rushdie, Patti Smith, and Philip Roth. Seven of the authors wrote short essays in T magazine about the experience of returning to their earlier work. Some instead discussed their writing process. What I found most valuable in terms of writing lessons was: 1. Getting an inside look at what went into the writing process - such as where certain references came from. Material and inspiration can come from anywhere - you just have to have your writerly eyes open even to the mundane. 2. Learning how much work, time or frustration went into crafting certain passages or first lines. Writing is always work, no matter how talented you are! 3. Seeing what sentences or passages they were still proud of in retrospect. It's encouraging for me when I go back and look at my old writing and find a sentence that surprises and delights me. Take time to appreciate yourself instead of just critiquing! Finally, here is an abbreviated version of Slate's "Three Things You Learn When Famous Writers Reread Their Old Books," excerpted from the article: 1. No one thinks their old books have held up. Or at least, the writers who considered the question at all went one of two routes: They either modestly highlighted perceived failures or cited changing social mores that had made their original points obsolete. George Saunders, for instance, said that ingรฉnue George Saunders affected an โ€œoddโ€ styleโ€”one that seemed to sacrifice โ€œfinesse and elegance โ€ฆ in the name of urgencyโ€โ€”because ingรฉnue Saunders thought it would make him sound less practiced and more authentic. 2. Ask writers to meditate on their past writerly personas, and you will mostly get further demonstrations of ongoing writerly personas. Not only do we have Saunders being charming/unassuming, Roth being incendiary, and Davis being unsettling, but there is Robert Caro marshaling a kind of understated grandeur (โ€œThe change in rhythm in the last line, thatโ€™s a dying fallโ€), Marilynne Robinson blending graciousness and lyricism, and Junot Diaz starting off with prophetic-sounding, epiphanic statements (โ€œThe beginning only revealed itself at the endโ€) that you hope heโ€™ll color in later. 3. When you ask famous writers to look at their old books, they start comparing them to ancient poetry (either that or T Magazine primed contributors with an image of the Iliad). โ€œWhatโ€™s the first wordโ€ of the Iliad, asks Roth. โ€œRage. That is how the whole of European literature begins: singing the virile rage of Achilles.โ€ Caro describes resorting to the Homeric catalogue in his bid to capture Robert Mosesโ€™ titanic achievements in highway construction. โ€œHomer lists all the kingdoms that are coming to sack Troy and all the heroes of Troy who are going to fight them. These lists have a great rhythm to them. I thought that, if I could write well enough, I could do the same thing with highways.โ€ Jennifer Egan laments that A Visit From the Goon Squad didnโ€™t contain a chapter written in Homeric style: โ€œI still regret that I couldnโ€™t find a way to include epic poetry and PowerPoint in a single book.โ€ Maybe the task of revisiting their older work got these writers thinking about the origins of literature itself.
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I find it really hard to read things I've written before, without wanting to edit edit edit! Even when I was posting some of my pieces here to Vingle, I wanted to edit them first, but I remembered that I was just looking to share a work from a particular time, and changing them (in the case of some of my pieces) would be changing the story too much. It's really great to know that writers have doubts about things they have written, but they also still find great bits and pieces that they love. Proof that it's worth all the struggles, I think!
I actually had a professor that had us read one of his books in class, and not for the purpose of just analyzing or praising! Actually, the reason he chose it, was because he felt the book had a lot of faults, but was a great example of a first book, and something to strive for, even if it was full of mistakes. He didn't seek our praise, but rather, asked us where it succeeded and where it lacked. The purpose was to teach us how to begin avoiding those things, though in writing, there is never a perfect formula for this!
I love this, and I think it makes a lot of sense: when I look back on my writing, I never think it has held up either. Nor do I fully agree with or understand many of the choices I made during that time! It's interesting to see (and know) that all writers have this reaction, even if don't all go through this experience. I think it's worth trying to learn something new!
@greggr It is encouraging to know others have the same trials - but also that they not only found faults. They found things they still loved from the work, too! @timeturnerjones - what a great lesson that professor gave! It is tricky to present your own work to students. Usually most of us try to avoid it, I think, but this is a great method.
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