Recycled writing: breathing new life into old words

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When I was studying for my master’s degree in writing, each week students were required to write a five hundred word piece on whatever topic was occupying the class at the time. I did eight subjects that were each twelve weeks long, so by the time I graduated, I had ninety-six pieces of writing.

If you’ve read the 2007 writing journal I published on this blog in July, you’ll know that as far back as then I was already thinking about how I could use all those pieces to create a book about writing (with the very unoriginal title “Everything I Know About Writing”). You’ll know I was trying to get out of having to write that writing journal by creating a book about writing. You’ll also know it didn’t work out and I ended up writing the writing journal anyway. But the idea never really went away.

When I started this blog in 2015, I quickly realised that I didn’t have nearly enough content to keep to the posting schedule I decided on. In addition to the novels I was writing, I would have to start producing blog posts, original blog posts, a lot of blog posts.

It was a daunting prospect. If you go all the way back to the beginning of my blog, you’ll see there is the occasional original blog post sandwiched between poems, novel chapters, a lot of things I wrote a long time ago. It was never going to be enough. And then I remembered those ninety-six pieces of writing.

When I dug them out of the folder they’d been hibernating in since 2007 (and some since before then), I knew immediately that I couldn’t post them as they were. They were written for academic purposes – academic writing purposes, yes, but academic purposes nonetheless. But what they could do was inform the new posts I wanted to write. So I created a list of topics and the associated piece of writing so I could refer to it as I wrote and gradually went about writing new pieces.

At the end of 2015, just nine months after I started the blog, I had written so much, so many blog posts, that I had enough (and in the right non-academic style) to put them together and publish them as the book that became Project December: A Book about Writing.

Not every single piece was something I’d written about during my master’s degree. The thing about writing is that it tends to raise more questions than it answers, more thoughts and ideas, so no sooner had I written about one idea and erased it from my ideas board, the empty space was filled up by something else I wanted to write about.

And I hadn’t gotten around to exploring every one of those recycled ideas. Not until the piece I posted on Wednesday about writing the book or character that will headline a writer’s obituary.

The link was tenuous. The idea on my ideas board read, “Are you conscious of the reader as you write?” (a very academic writing question, I’m sure you’ll agree). And the piece that I’d written all those years ago was a strict discussion of that question. Because my answer to that question has for a long time been a very simply “No”, I’d struggled with how to turn it into an entire blog post. In fact, that last recycled idea had been on my ideas board long after all the others had been erased.

But the idea of being conscious of the reader as we write linked back to the idea of trying to write what we think readers want to read, which linked back to trying to write with the legacy we want to leave behind in mind, which linked back to writing the book or character that will headline a writer’s obituary.

That academic piece of writing has now actually spawned two blog posts because one of the things I was discussing in it was me, as a woman, writing male characters and worrying about men who read my work thinking that the males in my books were kind of girly sounding. (Months and months after I first wrote and published, “Can Women Write Male Characters? Can Men Write Female Characters?”, it remains my most popular post. I like to think that’s because it’s good writing. But I suspect it has more to do with the ongoing debate writers have with themselves about whether they can do justice when writing characters of the opposite sex. I think it also has something to do with the fact that there seems to be a link to it on a student reading list at the City University of New York. The list is gated so I can’t get in and have a look but WordPress tells me that an awful lot of people are coming to read that piece from that link. If anyone can shed any light on precisely why, I’d love to hear it.)

The whole point of this post is to create awareness that one piece of writing can spawn many others. An old piece of writing can inspire you to write a new piece. When I dug out the first significant piece of writing I ever did, a novella, it inspired me to write a blog post on “The Embarrassment of Early Writing”. When I was reading my dictionary not long after I’d written a post about how much I love to read my dictionary, I found a description of a type of poem I’d never heard of and was inspired to write two poems. When I was writing Wednesday’s post on the book or character that will headline a writer’s obituary, I was inspired to write this Friday’s post about recycling writing.

We all know that writing is a journey and that we evolve as writers as we go on it. We write things along the way that we love and that we hate. But hold onto everything you write. You never know when it might turn into something you don’t hate as much as you used to. You never know when it might inspire the next thing you write (or the next book you write). You never know when your old words might re-emerge in a new and different light.

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