by Kirby Gann, Spalding MFA Fiction Faculty
Though I’ve long considered myself primarily a novelist, I’ve taken a shot at the short story form (never with real confidence) off and on over the past twenty-five years.
Some of these efforts were better than others, and found homes in the journals and magazines that help keep the vitality of the American short story alive and evident. I don’t know exactly why, but the past several months have brought me an unsought yet reinvigorated enthusiasm for the genre—both in my reading, which has been confined mostly to stories not only in magazines but in single-author collections and group anthologies, and in the focus of my own writing. I’ve set aside a deep draft of a novel in progress without the inner conviction that I’ll return to it eventually.
After completing the most recent story it occurred to me that, almost without intention, I’ve managed enough to consider compiling a collection of my own. The process has been surprising, forcing me to return to work finished so long ago that in two instances I don’t remember when, exactly, I wrote them. (An odd realization, as in large part the revisiting of these stories has felt like reading through a kind of biography, once- or twice-removed from its subject.) Some of these stories were not even in digital form and have required retyping from the published version. This has made for a strange and new (to me) undertaking that raises questions that have never occurred to me before: What would be the proper method for approaching work “of a certain age,” let’s say, with the knowledge of setting it beside current works? Which would be better—to allow the older pieces to stand as they were originally published, and thus gesture toward an arc of growth, or revise them so that all the stories feel “of a piece”? When do we commit to the final outcome—or can we say no piece of creative writing is ever finished?
And: is it even useful to the writer to re-immerse oneself in the older work under the belief that it can be revised to reflect one’s “current standard,” for lack of a better term? Or is it rather a case of spinning one’s wheels?
Needless to say, although I feel some appreciation for the style and structures composed by the young man in the mid-Nineties, it’s impossible to read his work without beginning to revise it from first word to last, at least in my head. It’s strange to read lines that must have meant a great deal to me twenty years ago—the best I could muster at the time—and try to resist questioning word choice, sentence rhythm, the pace of scenes. Character names. Whenever we read our older work we can’t help but see, immediately, how much our writing has grown, changed, expanded over the time that has passed. And not only recognizing growth as a writer, but as a person: the concerns that interested me at twenty-three, twenty-six, even thirty years old seem only tangentially related to what stirs my middle-aged self today. Stories that once gave me (almost) pride—here’s the best I’ve got, my younger self would have said, and surprisingly some editor out in the world thought my best good enough for strangers to read—seem like merely promising drafts today, and in need of complete reconsideration.
I find myself passing hard-nosed judgment on what essentially comprised an enormous part of my life, keeping those stories that seem promising enough to include (after heavy revision, of course) and discarding those that, from this perspective, can be diplomatically acknowledged as learning experiences for a tentative writer seeking his way. Additionally, during the process of revision these odd compunctions arise, thoughts that perhaps I’m not being exactly fair (the word that came to me now was moral) to what strikes me now as the work of another author entirely. Like self-censoring one’s past to impress someone new, eager to keep out the embarrassing stuff. And by erasing and replacing his words, maybe I’m doing the same to the young man who wrote them.
What sort of relationship do you have with your older writing? How does it feel to revisit a piece written not just months, but years ago? Would you allow that work to stand on its own, or would you desire “correcting” it somehow? Is there ever a point where we can consider a work “finished,” or is it forever provisional?
Kirby Gann’s most recent novel is Ghosting (2012), and his stories have appeared in Ploughshares and Post Road. He is series editor of Bookmarked, a book series hosted by Ig Publishing in which authors make unorthodox and freewheeling approaches toward a classic work that has influenced or been otherwise important to their own writing. Gann is also author of the project’s first volume, Bookmarked: John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, which appeared in 2016 along with Curtis Smith’s Bookmarked: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.