What do we owe ourselves?


Recently a writer whose work I adore, Daniel Keys Moran, made a comment that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. His major work, The Continuing Time, is a story he’s been telling himself/writing since he was a kid–ten or twelve years old. And he commented recently that he wondered what his 18-year-old self would think of the stories he was now telling: whether he would be angry, disappointed, what–because the stories he’s telling are not at all the ones he thought he would be writing when he was 18. The characters have changed, their journeys have changed, and their stories have changed. His exact words were “I hope my 18 year old self isn’t mad at me. This isn’t the [main character] he set out to write. But I’ve collaborated with that boy as best I can, and the things he thought and believed are not, on the whole, the things I think and believe today.”

I haven’t been able to get that question, that curiosity, out of my head. What do we owe ourselves as writers? What, specifically, do we owe our *younger* selves as writers? Because often our much younger selves are the ones who germinate the ideas we write years later. I have several cases of this in my own career, the most significant of which is THE QUEEN’S BASTARD, which (if you’ve read it this will make you choke) started out life as essentially a young adult novel. It, ah, it grew up along the way, and is now a book of sex, politics, murder and betrayal.

I’m not sure the…boy. 25?-year-old me? would be disappointed with what it turned out as, but she’d be startled. Probably just about as startled as I was when I came across the original notes & synopsis stuff I’d written for it, in fact. I’d known I’d reworked it extensively from the original concept, but I’d forgotten how straight-forward and innocent it had originally been. *I* like the story it ended up as more than her original idea, and I actually think she might be pleased with the skills on display in the book as-published. She *couldn’t* have told the story I ended up writing, because she didn’t have the skill set yet…but she would recognize herself in the writing regardless.

There’s another one, unpublished, that I’ve got about 50K written on and haven’t gone forward with in years. I mean, like, I haven’t worked on it since I lived in Alaska, six+ years ago, and I think it was more in the region of 2002 that I last prodded at it. That, after starting it in…possibly 1999. So when I go back to that one it’s *really* going to be a collaboration with my younger self, and I have no real idea what we’ll think of each other. (Of course, that’s the book that got the “Oh! You write really great plots & then drop in cardboard characters, right?” critique, so I have *some* idea of what’s going to need work… :)) I think in the end, though, that she and I will end up telling the strongest story we can, stronger than she could’ve done back in 1999, and it’s hard to imagine her being annoyed about that.

The big one for me, though, is my middle grade fantasy novel I wrote ten years ago. I’d been trying to write that book since I was twelve years old, and I’m *still* going through revisions on it to strengthen it. I can say with utter confidence that the 12 year old me would not be disappointed in me for what I’ve achieved with it as far as the story goes, though. I spent most of twenty years trying to achieve the simple ability to *tell* the story, and the fact that I succeeded at all resonates all the way back to my 12 year old self. It’s a book I would have wanted to read when I was 8-9-10, and that was what my 12 year old self wanted all along. She just didn’t know how to do it.

But all of that is a little different from DKM’s position, where he’s actually still telling the same story–the same characters, the same world, the same end game (I suspect, at least, that it’s the same end game)–that he started out telling when he was a pre-teen. I didn’t, of course, know him when the Continuing Time came to life in his mind, and I don’t know what his 18-year-old-self *thought* the story he’d be telling was, but…it’s hard for me to imagine that kid being disappointed with what his adult self has accomplished. Angry, yes, possibly, because that wasn’t how it was supposed to go!, but even at 18 a person can get over himself and recognize how “it wasn’t supposed to go like that” might just make for a better story.

My closest approximation to that is my Negotiator Trilogy, which underwent massive rewrites with every book. By the time I’d finished the first one, HEART OF STONE, it was a *completely* different book than the one it had started out as. Everything had changed–everything except the story. The story was the same from the first draft to the, uh, 5th total rewrite. And since that story is the one I was trying to tell all along, through all the different rewrites, revisions and trappings, I can’t say that the me who wrote it in 2002 was at all unhappy or displeased with the me who revised it into a totally different manuscript in 2006.

And I think ultimately that’s probably what the question comes down to, for me: has it served the story? Because all of us who are writers and storytellers, no matter if we’re collaborating with our pre-teen selves or with the writer who finished that draft last night. The best we can do is take who and what we are, what we’ve become through our lives and our years of developing as writers, and pour that into the stories we’re trying to tell. Maybe that means our teenage selves will be mad at us, but we’re doing the best we can by them and their dreams. The ungrateful little gits should appreciate that, at least!


17 comments to What do we owe ourselves?

  • A few years ago while teaching a book I hadn’t looked at for years, I stumbled on my undergraduate notes written a couple of decades earlier and found, to my alarm, that they were far more interesting and insightful than what I had planned to teach that day. Worse, they looked like they were my own ideas, not stuff I’d got from a lecture or book, and I found myself wondering when I had become so stale and predictable. Such moments are, I suppose, the necessary corrective to the idea that our adolescent selves were snivelling little no-nothings we are well rid of. I can’t get backt here, of course, but it’s probably helpful to think sometimes that my younger self would probably have been deeply skeptical of much of what I do and that he wasn’t always wrong.

  • Mikaela

    This was an interesting post, Catie.

    I think what we owe ourselves is to write the best story we can. And sometimes, for me, that requires stepping away from the story. I stepped away from Angel among demons, since the plot eluded me. Do I think it was worth it? Yes. I was a better writer when I picked it up again.
    And, the sequel… Well… That is still at the idea stage, since I am worried about other persons reactions to the setting ( which is Heaven). Someday though, I’ll sit down and write the story. I always do.

  • Younger me might be annoyed at how much of Shadowslayer changed during the four revisions. That’s just too bad. Younger me didn’t know much about storytelling and wanted to rehash a bunch of tired tropes in a pseudo-DnD world. There’s still a lot that would need to be changed for that novel to ever find it’s way on a bookstore shelf, unless I were to sell it to Wizards of the Coast or the Black Library (but then lose all rights to characters and world).

    My newer novel, Song of Fury, is a story that I wanted to tell, not a story that I wanted to retell. If that makes any sense. It speaks of things that are important to me through characters that are more original. Hopefully that satisfies both the publishing community and my inner writer.

    Happy Holidays and all the best in the new year.

  • Ken

    Thanks for posting Catie.

    My younger self read a lot of fantasy. Couldn’t get enough of the stuff. One of the best presents I ever got for Christmas was the Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit boxed set (which I still have…over 30 years later). My present self is writing Science Fiction and I think that the younger me would have shaken his head at that (you know how them youngsters get :)).

    If he read some of it, I think that he’d recognize the same sense of Awe, Wonder, and Potential that we both feel(felt) when we look up at the night sky that drove us to tell stories in the first place.

    What I think that we owe ourselves as writers (Past, Present, and Future :)) is to remember the why, remember the Awe, Wonder, and Potential that first struck us so long ago and keep that alive in our writing, regardless of what we write.


  • What an awesome, original post — notice at the bottom of the post where it says “No related posts.” That is the highest compliment an automated list generator can give. I’ll be thinking about this all day; thanks for that, Catie. Seriously.

    I think that my younger self would have recognized much of what I did with my first series as work that we had done “together,” and I think that reflects both the strength and fundamental weakness of that first project in its published form. It captures the passion and vision that captivated me in my younger years, but it also fails to move past the immaturity of that vision. I guess you could say that it is a classic first novel (and I don’t mean that in a good way) in that respect. But I also think that my younger self would be intrigued by the work that I have written since the LonTobyn books, and would be very excited about the urban fantasy work I’m doing now (in Thieftaker and other projects) because UF really didn’t exist when I started reading fantasy, and the subgenre itself is just so cool.

  • Catie, The Queen’s Bastard is one of my favorite books of all time. It was rich and evocative and sensual and brutal. It had a voice that made my heart sing as it hasn’t I was a twenty-something reader. I can believe that book was germinated in a young and facile mind and then finished by an adult mind with adult skills. Thank you for the back story on that one!

    As to me looking back and wondering what I might have thought of the things I write today, hmmm. I think I’d have been cheering me on. And hoping that my brain didn’t get stale and stuck and un-creative and unwilling to try new things. Now you have me thinking about the past and the future and this one plotline I wanted to write way-back-when and never did. It isn’t too late…

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for a very interesting post, Catie. It reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s “The Carpet People”, which he published when he was 17, then rewrote and published again at the age of 43. As someone who shudders to glance at the stuff I wrote four years ago, or even two years ago, I don’t think I’d ever have the guts to do that.
    Personally I don’t have a problem with totally humouring the teenage me, considering that I’m fourteen years old. 😛 I wish this worked backwards, I could sure do with some help from 40-year-old me right now. Anyone got a time machine I can borrow?

  • Razziecat

    First let me say that I adore the Negotiator trilogy. 🙂 And I love this post!

    I used to think that I couldn’t change any of my original ideas, couldn’t use anything that didn’t fit into my first vision of the characters and their story. When I picked up one of my old ideas & started to write in that world again, I started to ask questions that I couldn’t have asked way back when: They just wouldn’t have occurred to me. My characters & their world are true to the their original intent but in ways that I couldn’t have foreseen, and didn’t have the skill or the insight to write about. I think my old self would have been excited to see how much they’ve grown, and amazed at all the trouble they’ve gotten into. 😉

  • Vyton

    Catie, this is a very interesting post. I really don’t have any parallels to the teen years. Then I was trying to write spy-thriller type shorts. They were very short and very short on story telling. I can look back a number of years to a NaNo more than 10 years ago. Thank you for the perspective.

    Unicorn, could you not go through a world-building exercise to create 2047, and people it with the 40-year old you and a critique group? Then submit your manuscript for their review. It might not turn out to be remotely close to what you find when you get there (then), but it might be interesting and provide some insight.

  • This is such a great post. The books I’ve been working on lately, I’ve been working on for years, but less than a decade. My teen self? What would she think of me? I hope she’d be amazed and happy that she actually got the courage to write, rather than just date guys who considered themselves writers/artists. Don’t get me wrong, some of the men I dated are quite talented, but for years, even past college, I coudln’t think of myself as someone who could write. As a child and teen, I made up stories all the time and shared them (and story creating) with my friends, but I never thought to write them down. Despite all the support I got from my parents (and would have gotten if I’d told them I wanted to write), I still thought of myself, I think, as a side-kick girl. So, if I could meet myself now, and tell her about me, I’d say “learn you aren’t a side kick sooner. We could use the extra years of writing practice. Figure it out at about 20 rather than 27.”

  • Tim True

    Great post. Projecting, what we remember about ourselves twenty years ago can never be how we actually were–not in too much detail anyway. And what we imagine will become of us twenty years from now is only a shadow at best of what will truly be. There’s a story in here waiting to be written, set somewhere in the borderlands between time and eternity.

  • Carrie, this post really spoke to me. I also have a set of stories that I started when I was twelve, and rewrote and rewrote over the dozen years that followed as I kept learning more. Making changes to tell a better story, I’m used to. My teenage self would be annoyed that I’m not published yet, but my adult self is grateful that I haven’t. The stories mean so much to me that I’m glad I finally put them away so I could work on something else. When I finally come back to them, I can do so with a stronger skillset.

  • *Catie. *facepalm* ;__;

  • Younger me would be both alarmed and delighted by who I’ve become over all, so I think she would feel the same about much of the stuff I’ve written. In particular, she would be very upset to learn that I’ve embraced the concept of the crappy first draft, but she’d be delighted to know I’ve figured out how to finish a novel instead of starting and abandoning many novels. (Yeah, they’re connected.)

  • jiah

    About 7-9 years ago, the 18-, 19- and even 20-year old me was a brat. She wrote reams and reams because she had a take on the world. She had firm convictions that life never questioned. I believe (whispers) she even had the Booker prize in mind. She didn’t know that she’d go on to college for postgrad, where her convictions would be shaken, her worldview challenged, and she’d get lost for years. She’d flounder, and so would her writing. Now, I think, I’ve been rebuilding my perspective and slowly my writing as well. I think the younger me would perhaps be scandalized that I’ve “abandoned my convictions”. But curiosity would probably keep her reading, and hopefully, she’d realize that I’ve merely grown. Hopefully, she’d also realize that there’s no shame in admitting that we’re still growing.

  • Unicorn

    Vyton, that’s a really interesting idea… I should try it…

  • I LOVED the Queen’s Bastard. It was one of those books that was awesome to read and also made me re-evaluate my on works-in-progress. I’ve encountered my younger self a number of times in re-writing old ideas, but it’s my future-writer-self that worries me. Part of me feels that the me now will not measure up to what she is. The other part wants to use the excuse, “I don’t have the expertise to write this story right now, but I will in the future” and let the story go. Great post!