No writing critic stirs such terrors in me as my Future Self.
I may think my brand-new story about peppery kittens is the best thing since the Iliad. I may soar on currents of self-congratulation, but all the while Future Me is lying in wait to smother my zest.
That is because the delay between giddily finishing my first revision and returning to reread it somehow strips the sheen off my opus. The manuscript I re-evaluate after a hiatus is never the manuscript I remember. My clever metaphors seem too florid. What once seemed like eloquence has become bombast. “Once again, your ego has deceived you,” Future Me says. “Poorly executed and shoddily constructed. Start over.”
I have a name for this maddening phenomenon: temporal subjectivity. Everyone knows that writing is subjective from person to person. But writing is also subjective from moment to moment. I may hate at night a story I loved earlier in the day. Sometimes my attitude shift takes only hours. Maybe it is my bipolar disorder, but the writing process seems to lend itself to abrupt mood shifts,
I would be less crestfallen if my future self only denounced my rough drafts. I expect a rough draft to be rough. But the damning verdict from Future Me always occurs after I have painstakingly revised a written piece and mentaly declared it a success.
The difference of opinion between my present and future selves creates a dilemma. If Current Me loves my work but Future Me deems it blather, which self should I believe? The distinction is fateful. If I believe the grim denunciations of my future self, then I might have to scrap everything and start over. But if my past self was mistaken to love my work, I risk tossing a disheveled manuscript into a world already ailing from mediocrity.
Before I start razing walls of text, I have to think. The worst thing I can do is start making random, desperate changes. Frantic edits made to coddle a wounded ego are rarely good for stories. I might as well cut my hair by trial-and-error – which I have done with predictable results and would not recommend to anyone.
Nor is it a good idea to gaze at text in the hope of divining how to fix everything in a few facile strokes of a key. Staring at a wall of words only triggers frustration. The epiphany I am looking for is never going to come if all I do is wait.
It is better to go through a checklist of diagnostic questions, but first I do some the emotional screening. Could it be that my problem is not flawed text but a shift in my state of mind? Is a mood swing causing me to view my manuscript in a distorted way? Am I depressed? If so, it might not be the best time to revise a humor piece. Humor writing rarely strikes me the same way twice on my best days, much less when I am agonizing over the ephemeral nature of life or my inability to open a pickle jar.
On with my checklist. Do I have a migraine? Itchy toes? Are my pants too tight? What is going on in my life that could be affecting my perception? Do I feel hostile toward my manuscript because my cat just lost her kibble on the carpet? Or is it because when I called my pharmacist, she put me on hold and forced me to listen to gospel music for an hour only to hang up on me?
Anything that happens, no matter how trivial, can warp how I see my work. But if I finally decide that my mental state is fine and my prose is in fact culpable, I move on to forming a new plan.
I leave the screen and jot in a notepad what I think needs improving, basing my diagnosis on a quick impression. I ask questions, stating them positively when possible. Are my figures of speech fresh? It my story logical and well-structured? Are my characters consistent? Is my grammar solid? Is my tone the same throughout?
Detached analysis may not solve my problem right away, but at least it jolts me from helpless befuddlement and propels me toward clarity. Analyzing also encourages me by reminding me that any error in writing, no matter how egregious, can be changed.
But what if I solve all my writing problems and address all my concerns, only to later discover that I still hate my story without knowing why? Maybe statistics will help. I can say, “If I reread my story ten times and I love it at least seven of those times, then my story is a-go. Otherwise, I will revise it more.”
But this process is arbitrary and maddening. It propels my mood pendulum into violent motion. It triggers alternating periods of confidence and self-doubt. Nothing is more dispiriting than to believe you have written scintillating prose only to later find – again and again – that its luster was a mirage.
Worse, often I will reread my original revision only to find that of all my grinding rewrites, I like my original best. My first version crackles with spontaneity and freshness, I suddenly realize. Why did I ever think there was anything wrong with it? Past Me was correct after all. I have spent hours revising for nothing.
This absurd plight leads me to one other possibility for how to deal with Future Me: fire her.
Future Me is too fickle. She is not even me. She pretends to be a quality control expert, but she is really just a front for my control freak of an ego, which wants to micro-manage everything, so that I will always look good – an impossible task. If I have painstakingly revised my work and I have done my best and I love it, why is my single moment of approbation not enough?
Writing is relentlessly subjective no matter who is reading it — whether it is me or someone else. In fact, my inability to love my writing from one day to the next puts a whole new spin on the subjectivity of editors, publishers, teachers, and everyone else.
The world is brimming with potential readers who, like me, suffer from headaches, depression, sick cats, strict diets, messy houses, itchy toes, tight pants, leaky sinks and intransigent pickle jars – all of which affect perception. What does this mean? It means that trying to please anyone, including all my fickle future selves, is futile. I can do my best, but at some point, I have to let my work go.
Nothing I write will ever be beyond reproach. If I fully accept that, I can write whatever l like and have fun doing it. Freedom comes from accepting that writing to please anyone but myself – my present self – is unnecessary and possibly futile.
I do not have to make all my future selves happy. If at some point in time, I thought that what I wrote would have made Homer rethink The Iliad, then I can rest easy, let go, and begin something new.