Given the odds against getting an acceptance from a literary magazine, submitting short stories demands a certain imperviousness to rejection. Yet we writers keep doing it, often sending the same piece out to dozens of places. Like second marriages, as characterized by Oscar Wilde, we exemplify “hope over experience.” Eventually, though, as new stories (and loves) come along, we abandon those that preceded them.
Lately though, I’ve had some success revisiting, revising, and resubmitting old stories. By “old” I mean really old. I’m not referring to a story that is never finished, because the author is chronically unsatisfied. (Not my problem.) Nor do I mean an incomplete story, set aside in the last year or two with the intention of returning to it. I’m talking about a story marked “Final,” one that maybe even came close to being published. A story so old that, were I to submit it now, I’d want to re-save it with a current date so it didn’t appear to have been exhumed in a state of decay.
Why, in the light of previous experience, am I hopeful that an ancient story will fare better now? It’s not because I’ve forgotten the painful experience of multiple rejections. Nor do I suffer from repetition compulsion. Rather, it’s because good experiences improving my craft in the intervening years give me the confidence to do a superior job with the same material now.
As I searched for a single term to capture this revisit-revise-resubmit process, I thought of four more “re” (again) words. Rebuilding is “to build something again after it’s been damaged or destroyed.” But the stories I revisit haven’t been disfigured, merely left unattended. Returning, “to go back to a place, person, or activity,” is accurate, but it’s a bland description. Resurrection means “to raise from the dead (or) to bring to view, attention, or use again.” Part one is incorrect. The stories aren’t “deceased,” but rather “missing in action.” The second meaning comes closer, yet resurrection has such theological overtones that I hesitated to apply it to such an earthly and literary endeavor. I finally decided on revival, “to restore to consciousness.” To wit, after lying dormant, a story, unbidden, knocks on the door of awareness and says, “Remember me?”
By coincidence, a writer friend mentioned that she too was finding new life in old stories. I wondered if their allure was a function of age (I’m 73; she’s a few years younger), and whether cynics would say we were out of fresh ideas. Answering myself, I replied, “Bah, humbug! We’re examining the past through a new lens.” In an interview with The New Yorker about aging, editor and writer Roger Angell, speaking of John Updike, likewise said Updike always returned to the same themes — his Pennsylvania roots — but plumbed them with greater depth as he got older.
My friend seconded this perspective, but I wanted to dig deeper into this phenomenon, wearing my three hats as a writer, developmental psychologist, and fiber artist. Creative people across media often revisit old work. What motivates us? Curious, I searched the Internet with two questions: What are the literary reasons writers revisit and revise old stories? What are the psychological reasons writers revisit and revise old stories? Here’s what I unearthed.
Literary Reasons: It’s Not Because Our Well Has Run Dry
First, I was intrigued to discover that revision was not a standard writing practice until authors went from handwritten to typewritten manuscripts, namely 20th century Modernists such as T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. The reason is simple: Revision became more feasible. Noted writers pride themselves on being prolific revisers. Raymond Carver told Paris Review he reworked stories “as many as 20-30 times and never less than 12.” Joyce Carol Oates revises “all the time, every day.” Today, with computers, revision is not only expected, but required. In other words, technology influences literary practice. As technology evolves, so will the mechanics of our craft.
Beyond just saying “Do it,” contemporary writers expound on the how-to’s of revision. Neil Gaiman says, “The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer.” According to Writers Digest, the rewrite is tougher than the draft. “The draft is infatuation. The right rewrite strengthens your fiction into something that lasts to publication and gains a significant readership.” Repeated readings allow us to detect bad habits, blush in shame, and outgrow them.
Multiple sources emphasized revision as an integral part of completing a story in the first place. There were inspiring tales of authors picking up abandoned pieces after getting stuck, then seeing their way out of a quagmire. But ultimately, I found nothing on why or how writers go back to work they long ago polished to their satisfaction, had high hopes for, yet kissed goodbye. So I delved into my own experience and that of a small sample of fellow writers.
A common reason for returning to a finished work is seeing a literary magazine’s call for submissions on a theme. The story resurfaces like a long-lost friend. After getting reacquainted, we conclude it fits the theme, or could with tweaking, and set to work in a new frame of mind. Even if the story isn’t accepted for the theme issue, we’re so pleased to have gotten back in touch that we begin a fresh cycle of submissions. One of them may pay off. Our optimism is revived.
A second goad is current events. A timeless old story is suddenly timely, even if (or better yet, because) the connection is oblique. For example, we read a report about the impact on migrant children of being separated from their parents and recall an old story about a child left without a parent for a different reason (perhaps the parent is taking care of an ailing relative). Based on what we’ve just read about migrant families, we see a way to expand the devastating emotional effects of a family trauma in our narrative. Resurrecting the story is an opportunity to enrich it, while simultaneously offering people concerned about today’s issue an alternative way to engage. An editor will jump at the chance to be both topical and literary. At least, we hope so.
Third is salvage. We’re revising a new story but, after killing our darlings, we admit that a great idea has to go. We could just trash it, or save it to use in a future work. Now and then, however, rather than wait for a piece that may never be written, we realize a dead darling can be instantly resurrected in a completed one. We decide what to nudge aside, or where to carve out space, in order to insert it. Now that almost-discarded gem can shine in a new setting. Thus do we reduce, reuse, and recycle, applying ecology’s three R’s to a literary undertaking. Back pat.
A fourth possibility is that an event — in our own lives, a book, a movie, and so on — leads to a meaningful insight about human behavior. Personally touched, we are prompted to reinterpret how a character in an old story might respond in a comparable situation. This thought chain may be particularly true of fictional work with autobiographical roots, but it also applies to wholly imagined pieces. The empathy that led to our original characterization now changes our perception. Thus enlightened, we update the story to incorporate our “aha” moment.
I considered these instances good explanations of why writers revisit a once-satisfactory story. But I further wondered what gets changed: the beginning, the ending, a now-sagging middle, or the entire arc. How radically do we revise? Is the process a total overhaul or tinkering around the edges? Full immersion or toe-dipping? Occasionally, people write what is, in effect, a new story. Overwhelmingly however, we focus fore and aft. After a long absence, we stop at a different place on our way home and decide to restart the journey from there. It doesn’t mean that we began at the wrong place before, only that we’ve discovered a new point of embarkation. As for the ending, a previously nonexistent light bulb is switched on. That heretofore incandescent conclusion is now brightened by a cranial light-emitting diode that illuminates the whole edifice.
Investigating the above phenomena, I came away with a stronger rebuttal for cynics who claim we return to old work because we’ve run out of fresh ideas. Clearly those carpers are not writers themselves. They don’t appreciate that revision is itself an innovative act in which we create settings, characters, and plots as much as when we invented the original story. So there.
Psychological Reasons: It’s Not True That You Can’t Go Home Again
My psychological questions about revisiting our history paralleled the last set of literary ones. Do we dig up the past in hopes of altering the beginning, ending, and/or the path to how we arrived at where we are now? Does it lead to radical changes our lives or small incremental steps?
When I searched the Internet using terms like “revisiting the past,” most of the sites that popped up addressed nostalgia. Both common wisdom and expert opinion deprecate nostalgia for being rooted in physical and mental distress, orienting us to the past, and preventing us from living fully and healthily in the present. Yet new research shows just the opposite. Nostalgia promotes psychological well-being and helps us cope with adversity. It increases positive moods, feelings of belonging, self-esteem, perceptions of meaning in life, and optimism. Even when the memories themselves contain negative emotions, they don’t induce negativity. While engaging in nostalgia can of course be overdone, revisiting the past is generally good for us.
Neuroscientists have further discovered that when we call up an old memory, our brains reactivate and represent the entire event. People, location, smells, music, and so on are recalled. The memory takes on a cinematic quality, unreeling like a home movie. A writer’s analogy might be envisioning a whole scene as it’s committed to the page. In recall, the hippocampus’s “pattern completion process” pieces together the components to form a cohesive remembrance of things past. Proust, a contemporary of Freud, was onto something. Does the fact that the former is today held in higher regard than the latter attest to the timelessness of literature over scientific theory?
Yearning for the past most often occurs during times of transition (for example, retiring), or dislocation or alienation (such as moving, military conflict, technological progress). In the face of instability, the mind reaches for positive memories, which are more crystallized than negative or neutral ones. Again, contemporary research contradicts a maladaptive view. Reminiscence acts as a stabilizing force, strengthens a sense of personal continuity, and reminds us of relationships that bring us comfort. There is a risk when what psychologists call “historical nostalgia” seduces us into retreating to a romanticized or idealized past. But when we avoid the global and focus on personal experiences, nostalgia is a useful tool to endure change and create hope for the future.
The search for home is a powerful motivator. Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again, but revisiting an old story refutes that notion. We need not think home was uninhabitable before to make it more hospitable now. We can anticipate the satisfaction of our story finally finding a home, a literary one, by being published. The process is gain without pain, unless you find writing itself painful. I don’t. So that’s a topic for another article, by a different author.
In Conclusion: Not Proof, But Justification
In the end, does revisiting the past leave us satisfied or disappointed, stuck (perhaps in a new place) or energized to move on? If we undertake the task overwhelmed by literary caveats, the result may be no better than the original. If we believe warnings about the dangers of nostalgia, we may dig ourselves into a hole we can’t climb out of. But if, on the contrary, we’re confident our craft has improved, and use our newfound wisdom about writing — and life — then the outlook is bright. If we accept the risk-benefit of nostalgia as landing in its favor, we’ll come out ahead.
Alas, my investigation did not provide universal or definitive answers to why we revive very old work. That’s fine with me, since I favor ambiguity as a writer and a reader. My personal takeaway, however, is that returning to stories completed long ago is both healthy and generative. We’re reminded of our strengths, connected to fellow writers and other creators, and energized to move forward with a particular manuscript and perhaps to revisit others from the distant past.
Maybe in a decade or so, something will spur me to revisit this article. I might reframe the questions, or arrive at different answers. For now, however, I’ll let this version stand.