About excavating old projects

I have nearly all of my writing saved from about 7th grade onward. From 7th grade, I’ve got a single essay about Of Mice and Men; after that, I have nearly every essay or story I ever wrote saved in whatever file format I wrote it in. It’s incredible. I’ve got every typed Latin translation I did in 8th grade. I’ve got the application I wrote to my school’s yearbook committee in 9th grade:

yearbook9thgrade

From 10th grade I have an incredibly insulting poem I wrote in rhyming couplets about my English teacher, who was notorious for sloppy grading and passing out in her office on Robitussin. I actually distributed this one to my classmates, who never revealed me as the (extremely obvious, in retrospect) writer:

rageofgillis

From 11th grade I have another poem, untitled, in a document called “hmm.doc”, which, among other things, claims that we’re going to be graded poorly at the end of the world by god if we eat too much salad:

11thgradepoem

From 12th grade I have an incredibly elaborate script I wrote for my partners in a history class mock trial. We did an extremely large number of mock trials in 12th grade AP Euro, and for several of them I wrote all the prep materials for my partners and tried to get them to memorize various arguments. I once made a classmate cry in a mock trial:

12thgradepug

I have most of my notes from college; a few years were lost to broken hard drives. The most impressive schoolwork I’ve found so far is a folder full of notes and drafts I made of a paper about plays about Robespierre. I took 43 pages of preparatory notes from the various papers and plays I read in prep for this piece:

robespierrepaper

The result of all this was a paper titled “Why Robespierre has no ‘personal life'” which was so good and so much fun to write that I physically shook and cried when I finished writing it. My history professor liked it so much that she offered to submit it to a competition for me; unfortunately, she sent the email after the end of the term, and I did not read it until the next year, when the deadline had passed. I just reread the paper now and I love that I got to write something so bizarre and interesting. It includes stuff like this:

robespierrepaperexcerpt

It’s fun to look back at my old schoolwork; I really truly and deeply loved being a student, and I had some fun successes, and the research work I produced as an undergrad is still entertaining for me to read today.

The fiction I wrote as a child and a teenager, however, is physically painful for me to read!!

Some background information: when I was in 6th grade, my close friend Liz approached me in the after-school program and handed me a floppy disk containing a 30-40 page fantasy story she had written. She asked me to read it and tell her what I thought. I remember that I said quite nice things to her– nicer than I really felt, because it was a romance story and I did not like or understand romances. It took place in a world highly similar to the Stock Fantasy World we all read about in Lord of the Rings and Lord of the Rings ripoffs, but the horses had six legs, and that really bothered me, for some reason.

I had an astonishing number of uncharitable private thoughts about her story, actually. I remember sitting in the after-school program room and giving her suggestions and suddenly clamming up when I became aware of the sheer number and crankiness of the suggestions I had stored up in my head. I’d written my own “books” in composition journals before– lots of talking-animal tales– and after seeing Liz’s work I was suddenly consumed by the desire to write an entire novel on a computer. My own novel, following the suggestions I’d been telling her before I suddenly recognized them for my own taste.

So I basically started writing fiction because I wanted to privately show up one of my best friends. This doesn’t reflect well on me. But right there, that very day, at that exact computer, with Liz’s story open on a window in the background, full of indignation that her horses had six fucking legs, I began writing a fantasy novel in 10-point Arial font.

It ballooned to over 300 pages by the end of 8th grade, when I finished it. It absolutely consumed my free time. Throughout those years I kept various version-controlled copies of the story burned to CDs and hidden in jewel cases taped to the back of my dresser and the underside of my desk drawer. I still have all those copies, saved on various external hard drives:

chronicle-version-control

This means I can go back in time to the earliest version of this story and read it. It’s the one down at the bottom in .rtf format, and it is the actual file that I typed and saved on that school computer where I read Liz’s story. (I actually kept it saved there at school for months until my dad mentioned at dinner that it was possible for hard drives to fail.) Anyway, here are the first two paragraphs:

chronicle-first-version

That, right there, is my 6th-grade storytelling. I absolutely love my strict dedication to sticking the exclamation point after the parentheses.

I hate absolutely everything else about this story. Not only is it silly young-person writing, but it embodies some life attitudes and political sensibilities that I no longer agree with, and it makes me very uncomfortable to see my child self proselytizing them in a book about wizards who wear color-coded clothes like karate masters and spend a lot of time arguing about the semantics of the word “werewolf”.

was-wolf

The biggest reason these stories make me uncomfortable, though. is that I am still subconsciously excavating them for writing material today.

Between 6th and 12th grade, I wrote four different novel-length stories. Three of them were rehashes or recyclings of the story I started writing when Liz showed me her six-legged-horse romance in the after-school room. The first version, above, started out as some kind of weird action story political thriller thing with wizard politicians sentencing one another to imprisonment before racing to kill an evil wizard at the north pole who lived with t-rexes in a cave. (It’s deeply uncomfortable to read now, but I have to recognize that it was badass.)

The second story I wrote was a super-confused sequel. (It had no t-rexes.) The third story, though, was a complete remix of the original premise. I saved the city names and two of the character ideas and completely redid everything else while keeping generally to the same themes. But one of the characters I saved was a wizard– and then he got recycled again when I started rewriting the story as an adult, and guess the fuck what– he’s been recycled a couple more times and now he’s in Six Months. He’s your research assistant in that story. He’s completely different and I no longer write like an 11-year-old, but the bones are still visible to me, and Jesus Christ, guys, this is terrible! This is terrifying! I’m trying to write a novel-length game which I now completely and fully realize is based on recycled material I created in the sixth fucking grade!

The cool thing about writing is that your time spent doing it is never wasted. Even if you write something that is never published, you are getting better every moment you spend toiling away. I once wrote well over a hundred quests for a cancelled game, and freaked the fuck out when I learned we were ceasing development. The next day, though, I woke with some kind of spooky icy calm and told myself that I’d learned so much doing it that it wasn’t actually a waste. Spooky-me was right. Writing is the hard work we do to communicate with other people, but even if other people never get to see it, you’re getting better at the communicating, so it’s fine. It’s fine! It’s okay.

It seems however that I’ve been subconsciously saving a lot more from my middle school works than I thought I was. I wasn’t just taking new skills with me when I moved on. I wasn’t just recycling place-names. My work is built on some really old fucking bones and I had no idea how old and how obvious those bones were until I read all this shit today.

Everyone tends to have their own private-but-obvious themes that they gravitate to in their writing– even their most commercial and crass writing. In 2014, I wrote like three different versions of the same relationship in three different failed writing projects, and in December of that year, I suddenly laid all those stories out next to one another and nearly shat myself.

When it comes to stories about wizards who live in renaissance-era cities, I have been writing for like fourteen or fifteen fucking years about, apparently, the same couple people, doing the same couple things off and on as they skip between stories and contexts and shitty fucking magic systems. Soller in Six Months combines the ignorance and cunning I gave various of his older selves in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010, and 2012. Simon Villano is actually this humble old regent dude from the 2006 story, which I wrote in high school:

villano

Later in that story he is so nervous about fighting a battle that he barfs in a closet. I knew I was recycling those themes, but I had no idea how closely I was sticking to them!

A lot of people keep elaborate moleskins of notes so that they can refer to them later and mine their passing thoughts for good creative work. I used to do this in college. These days, though, I am almost never more than two feet away from something with Google Docs on it, so I actually try writing out a couple paragraphs of any idea I have to see if it feels good or not. I have hundreds of page-long moments saved in my Drive where I tried an idea out and realized it sucked, actually.

But the very first idea I ever had is still haunting me, apparently. Does that make it shitty? Sure feels that way to me, even though I know that feeling’s wrong. Maybe recycling these ideas over and over again for fifteen years has made them extra good. Maybe I tumbled the sediment out and only the gems are left.

Or maybe I’m just lazy. Who knows? We’ll find out, eventually.


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