Yet Untitled 083 - Talking to versions of myself that are 6, 9 and 17 years apart
The time machine of writing an autobiographical novel
Dearest Yet Unititler
In the spirit of Austin Kleon, this is a Show Your Work post - the idea being not to shy away from exhibiting work in progress and seeing the act of exhibiting it even in an incomplete form as an important and constructive part of the process. Kleon refers to it as ‘opening your cabinet of curiosities’ once in a bit.
So, here goes…
I’m revisiting some of my writing from the early 2000s. It’s a collection of prose written by my 26-year-old self about my 23-year-old self in conversation with my 17-year-old self. I had been encouraged to write a novel by a mentor whose encouragement I took very seriously. I started, but didn’t finish.
Now, 17 years later, I’m revisiting everything I had written, and I like it. I believe that the writing is still relevant today and I’m going for closure - to finish!
I’ve thought about finishing this novel multiple times over the past 17 years, and one of the roadblocks I always run into is looking for validation - for someone else to tell me that it’s worth finishing this piece. However, dear Yet Untitler - I say this to you on my 100th post, no less - after one hundred instances of self-publishing this newsletter later, I feel I don’t need that external validation anymore; that the work is worth pursuing because I deem it to be so. Just as I have deemed every single one of my YU instalments worthy to publish each week. The fact that you’ve encouraged me the entire way is one big, fat bonus. I owe you a gargantuan Thank You for this.
I’m going to finish it.
And I thought, perhaps, once in a bit I’ll check in with you about where I am with it. Some interesting things are happening, which I feel are worth sharing.
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The way forward
Coming back to the writing after a long hiatus, this is what’s happening - my 43 year old self is stepping in to a conversation between my 26, 23 and 18 year old selves. My 43 year old self does not sound like the 26 years old self that has done the bulk of the writing that is currently the piece’s point of view. Going forward, there are some creative choices to be made -
Choice 1 - Step into my 26 year old self’s skin again and write as that person?
It’s tempting (fascinating!) to revisit how I saw the world back then. It isn’t an alien feeling. After all, it me! But. But. I cannot avoid the lens that my 43 year old self brings to the existing writing. My 43 year old self has a tendency to edit my 26 year old self. I have to be especially careful in the places where I have to fill in the gaps between what I have written. My 43 year old self tut-tuts a bit. Sometimes it’s amused, but mostly it tries to pare away what it considers embarrassing. My 43-year-old self judges my 26-year-old self quite freely.
Choice 2 - Find a way to bring in my voice as a 43 year old
This is what I’m leaning toward, but I don’t know how to pull it off yet. Working across various timelines as the piece is asking me to do, I like that it’s giving me the opportunity to break linearity, which gets boring after awhile for me, especially when I’m drawing from autobiography. It’s like - all this has already happened in this sequence, and reliving it in the same sequence creates no additional insight; reveals nothing. Hence, I find it boring.
But this…conversation, it has caught my curiosity. There’s danger in it - because of all the rough edges of my past selves that I feel when I grate against them. On a podcast I heard recently, an eminent poet speaks about how the poetry that creates ‘danger’ also creates the opportunity for the poem to ‘rescue’. I like this idea - this reason for being vulnerable.
It seems that honesty is my only currency here, to make this endeavour worthwhile. It means not holding back on sharing this embarrassing photo of my 16-year-old-self that shows me making lewd gestures at a Pamela Anderson poster that I put up willingly in my room while on an exchange program in the UK, despite anything my 43-year-old-self may want to say.
Choice 3 - Writing about the past as if it’s the present
This is another way to keep things interesting as I write. I get bored talking about the past; I don’t know why. Let me not be unfair to the past - it’s the raw material for so much that I write, but I these days I find it interesting only as raw material that needs processing. Perhaps I’m saying the obvious, as I didn’t really study any textbooks on this. So much of my skill as a writer has come from feeling my way forward over around two decades. What I have found is that when I’m writing things based on my own history, I feel like I need to use some tricks to detach myself from the material. The trick of time is a good filter, an experiential one, that alters perspective and keeps it fresh for me.
Writing is fascinating! Our capacity to imagine as human beings is fascinating! When I as a 43-year-old will write in the now about something I remember as a 26-year-old, I wonder what the alchemy between the two timelines and two states of being will reveal. I wonder what it will reveal to leave my 26-year-old self’s writing to sit relatively untouched beside my 43-year-old self’s words.
I’m curious, to say the least.
Having predominantly written screenplays all the way to completion, I’m on less solid ground with this prose business, but neither was I on solid ground when I became a parent, or when I lost one of my parents.
In either case, I had to Keep Going - another one of Austin Kleon’s dictums. When I was 23, one of my friends told me that they could see me as a parent, so I guess the desire to be one was somewhere emblazoned on my being. Losing a parent, well - it’s something I signed up for as someone born of someone. Writing a novel - many of you have encouraged me to do it, even very kindly told me that I’d be good at it. But the strongest desire towards this has come from deep within me.
I will find my way. Of course I will. I have you.
Lots of love