Catching up on my James Bond gossip today, as I am wont, I came across a snippet of an article about how Pierce Brosnan doesn’t like to watch his Bond movies. This is not an uncommon stance among actors. In fact I can’t think of a single actor I’ve ever heard of claiming that he or she enjoys checking out their old stuff. Maybe it’s a stock reply because they think that otherwise they’ll come off as immodest. But it’s probably genuine. I can recall attending sci-fi conventions and being surprised, at least at the early ones, that the actors knew far less about the work they’d appeared in than the fans in the audience. How could they not know? They were in it, for Pete’s sake, they must have watched it a thousand times too! Of course they should be aware that you can’t fire the phasers by pushing the seventh button on the display panel, it’s the eighth button. Sheesh. (Cue the Simpsons nerd saying “I hope someone got fired for that blunder.”) So I read this article about Brosnan and I’m reminded of the post I wrote defending George Lucas’ right to tinker with his creation. It’s an interesting contrast between the artist who abandons his work without a second thought and the one who obsesses over getting it right for years on end. The spectrum of writers must be of the same diverse breadth. Look back, or move ever forward without the mirror?
George Harrison wrote in the liner notes of the 2000 CD reissue of his 1971 triple album All Things Must Pass that he had to resist the temptation to remix every song. As I’ve admitted previously, I’m a tinkerer when it comes to my words. I edit and re-edit, deleting and shifting words around in pursuit of the perfect sentence. It’s probably not the best way to flex one’s writing muscles – not nearly as productive as simply letting go and watching the words pour out. That is the notion behind NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, what those of us who can’t grow mustaches well do in lieu of Movember), in that you are not permitted to go back and edit until you have completed the month’s worth of writing (and finished a first draft to boot). But frankly, there are days where I just don’t have it in me to create much new stuff, and editing is a stopgap way to keep the juices trickling, if not flowing. I’m aware of the school of thought that says that on days like that you should force yourself to write anyway. Perhaps that’s true. That is one of the reasons I find blogging refreshing. Something can be written spontaneously about the events of the day, completed and sent off into the void with little thought to looking back and changing things around. It is another step towards pure creation.
But is there value in going back? I’m of the opinion that there is, despite some seeing it as narcissistic navel-gazing. For one thing, given that all writers are tremendously insecure and at our core, believe that we suck and no one will ever read us (admit it!), it’s healthy to revisit something that you wrote that really shone. Somewhere amidst the hundreds and thousands of words of triteness and crap that will never voyage beyond your hard drive, the gems are lurking. You can probably imagine such a passage off the top of your head. A few dozen words scribbled or typed late one night in the midst of a short story or unfinished, Proustian behemoth of a postmodernist novel that just for one moment, scraped against the door of greatness. And then you remind yourself, on your worst, most doubting day, that yeah, you can do this. You’ve done it before, you’ll do it again. Or, you look back to remind yourself of how much better you’ve become. How you’ve abandoned your overreliance on adverbs and polysyllabic words and found your clarion voice. It’s the evolution of you, the honing of the mark you are going to make on the literary canon, a blade sharpened and polished one paragraph at a time.
Pierce Brosnan may not want to watch his old movies anymore. But I’m happy to take a stroll through the memories of old works whenever it suits me. Because at the risk of hauling out one of those trite expressions that as a maturing writer I should never, ever use, you can’t know where you’re going until you understand where you’ve been. And every so often, you have to glance at the map again.