“I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
My wonderful friend and writing buddy Nancy and I were enjoying an evening of music and a little lit chat in between sets. At one point, Nancy, who’s a gifted college writing teacher, told me that as an exercise for her students, she had them listen to a tape of Paul Simon strumming chords and working out the words of a song and then listen to the final version. She wanted them to note the difference between the initial “draft” stage and the finished product.
What an inspired idea! This led me to think about the how valuable it can be to read some of the earliest work of a writer you love. Why take the time to do this?
First, it’s heartening to know that a writer whose mastery you admire once struggled to tell a story or penned sentences that seem flat or clunky. Second, you can often see glimmers of their more mature work peeking through their prose or poetry; identifying these fragments can help you isolate elements of their evolving style. And finally, juxtaposing early work and later work can give you a strong sense of the trajectory of their creative development — and a greater appreciation of the emotional depth and stylistic heights they’ve reached.
I once looked at two short stories by one of my favorite writers, Willa Cather, back to back — one published early in her career and one very late. What struck me most was how powerful the later story was because of what Willa chose not to put in — what she left unsaid. In her early story, she was busy trying to say everything — such different impulses, and such different results. Why not consider trying this yourself? Write on!