Nostalgia and old notebooks

The last time that I visited my parents, I uncovered a stash of my old notebooks. They have all the (non-school-related) poems and short stories that I wrote between the time that I was 14 and the summer I was 18, along with random musings and short descriptive essays.

They also contain a surprising number of puns (most of them dreadful). Example: “When life gives you a dilemma, make dilemonade.” (Don’t say I didn’t warn you).

I spent a good hour or two just flipping through the books and re-familiarizing myself with their contents. For a long time, I thought I’d misplaced those notebooks. In a lot of ways, I see the time that I was writing in them as the beginning of my journey as a writer, so finding them again was a relief. I hated the thought of losing all record of the years when I started discovering my voice and conceptualizing myself as a writer.

I have to admit, I still have a fondness for the words on those pages. In my experience, most people seem to be vaguely embarrassed of the things they wrote when they were younger, but I’m not. Mostly.

There are times that I think to myself, “Wow, I really was a pretentious child.” I read a lot as a kid and for some reason I thought that could help me avoid the pitfalls of adolescence (including that of being a know-it-all teenager). This resulted in a lot of self-analysis and meta moments in which I pondered how stupid all my writing would seem when I was older.

The thing is, when I’m re-reading these notebooks, I relive the experiences too. I feel the same emotions that I felt when I was writing those stories and poems. I know that in terms of technical ability and emotional complexity, I’ve been improving all the time. (With age comes wisdom? Maybe). But still I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a quality of my early writing that I can’t recapture.

Sometimes random lines from a poem that I wrote when I was 14 will jingle around in my head for no reason. Sometimes the ideas from the allegory that I wrote when I was in high school will capture my imagination. But now that I have the opportunity to look them up, I know that they will have to lose some of the luster they’ve gained through my unreliable memory.

Somehow, I can’t let go of my old writing. Part of me sees it with clear eyes, as an artifact of the person that I was, but part of me still sees it “like a red-hot coal straight from the fire,” as I phrased it in the extremely meta preface that I wrote for the beginning of a new notebook when I had just turned 15.

I continued, “like the coal after it’s been out of the fire, my work starts to cool down and turn gray, and I know it’s not the best thing I ever wrote. Maybe that’s a good thing to know.” Yes, I think it is, Me-from-the-Past.

The question is, knowing that, what do I do with this three-volume chunk of nostalgia? Sure, it’s great to be able to trace my past as a writer, but can any of this work contribute to my future? I honestly don’t know.

Is it possible to rework old pieces of writing that you created during a more productive (but perhaps less profound) period of your life? (That alliteration was completely unintentional, I swear.) Is it better to focus your creative energies on new ideas rather than constantly trying to recapture the glow of writing you’ve outgrown? Is there value in revisiting old writing?

If you have any words of wisdom, please share them in the comments! I’m really curious as to what other writers do with their old drafts and rediscovered writing.

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3 thoughts on “Nostalgia and old notebooks

  1. Not exactly words of wisdom, but a few months ago I re-read stuff I’d written when I was 8 or 9 or ten and some even when I was 12 (the craze for writing began at 13). They were so bad I wished to throw them away, but while mentioning this to my diary I realized I should save these since destroying them would be devastating for my 8 year old self, and they could be used to compare my writing then and now, and see how much improvement I’ve made. Maybe you could do the same. I bet your younger self would have valued those words very much while writing them.

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