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Literary Smackdown

Sharon Butala vs. Jane Urquhart: Read past work/Never look back

We've teamed up with The Next Chapter to present The Canada Writes Literary Smackdowns, an essay series in which authors sound off on various writing topics. No writers were injured in the making of this series.

Battle Eight: Is it ever a good idea to read your past writing? Sharon Butala has been known to do it—and finds it a rewarding, if not always a strictly feel-good, experience. Jane Urquhart, on the other hand, thinks that reading any of her past work would surely end with the purchase of an industrial shredder. What do you think—are you on Team Jane or Team Sharon?


Sharon Butala: Read past work

I take part in the guilty pleasure of re-reading my past work: Sometimes, rarely, I even make a date with my own book or essay to sit down and re-read it, but more often I catch myself re-reading this or that passage, or a full essay, or story, when I am looking for a reference to insert somewhere else, for material for another speech or essay, or more often, for a speech I can re-cycle. I call it a guilty pleasure, because despite being raised as a Roman Catholic, I have imbibed the Protestant Selfless ethic—the British one in particular—and despite my French Canadian and Irish bloodlines, constantly have a WASP voice whispering in my ear that says that re-reading your own work is self-indulgent, a kind of preening, and filled with self-love, of which we are not supposed to have any.

But it isn’t always a pleasure: Sometimes it is absolute hell. How could I ever have written such a piece of drivel? Said such a totally dumb thing? What was I thinking? Was I maybe drunk? More likely though, I will cringe at the awkwardness of a sentence, or at a poor word choice, and most often of all, will notice I have used the same word twice—and one horrible day three times—in either one sentence, or two sentences in close proximity. How could I have missed that? I groan, and smack my forehead. I am my own harshest reviewer, my self-worth measured only by the quality of my past writing.

Now and then though, my heart will do a little flip, a tiny touch of plain old sweat will spring out on my palms when I see that I have written a phrase, or a sentence, or a whole passage that seems to me inspired. I sit there staring at it in awe, and I wonder if I could possibly have written that myself, if some editor fixed up what I must have badly written, or if maybe my guardian angel had stepped in in horror when I lay sleeping, and reached out an angelic fingertip to fix my incompetence, my stubborn earthly reaching for a brilliance I don’t have, that falls so far short of what I meant to say, wanted with all my heart to say, but couldn’t find the words. The bad stuff is all my own, I think; the good stuff is a gift from the Gods.

I am reminded of how far I have come in the more than thirty years I’ve been writing and publishing; I am chagrined to find how far I still have to go to come anywhere near the work of the best. I think, there is something I once tried to do but couldn’t, and that I think maybe now I can do, and must try it again: I think, why write twice what I got right the first time, and I borrow a bit and use it again. I think what a long career it has been, how much heartbreak, how much love and how much success. I think, how proud I must be, as if the person who wrote all that “stuff,” pages and pages and books of it, was someone else, not me at all. And how much pain and regret and failure. 

But if my past writing has taught me anything, as I sit on the edge of my chair, my heart in my throat, re-reading it, it has taught me how honourable it is to have written, and to have kept writing, and how some day, I hope and pray, I will find the words to at last say what I really mean.

Sharon Butala is the author of six novels, three short story collections and seven works of nonfiction. She is the recipient of the Marian Engel Award, is an Officer in the Order of Canada, and has two honorary doctorates for her work. In 1996 she and her husband Peter (deceased in 2007) helped the Nature Conservancy of Canada turn the family ranch in southwest Saskatchewan into the Old Man On His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area. Sharon now lives and works in Calgary. Her latest book is The Girl in Saskatoon: A Meditation on Friendship, Memory and Murder.

Jane Urquhart: Never look back

One of the few vows I have ever taken in my life is a vow never to read my earlier work. To my mind reading my previous work is to court madness of a Byzantine variety. First let us consider the state of mind that might lead me to even think of reading a novel that I wrote in the past. I can’t even imagine what that state of mind might be. Nostalgia? Curiosity? Self aggrandizement? Self punishment? A desire to stumble across ancient, and now utterly unfixable, typos? Or, perhaps, a mad impulse to discover whether or not your publisher was lying to you about the fine quality of paper stock on which your words were printed? Maybe an inexplicable urge to induce a bout of melancholia by wallowing around in the notions of transience and mutability evidenced by crumbling brown pages held together, or better yet, not held together by cracked glue? No, it is too absurd. Why would anyone want to read their previous work?

Reading your current work is bad enough. Every day when you come back to your current work you want to rip it up and start all over again. In fact most days you do rip it up and start all over again. Secondary revision is a chronic disease, moreover, and the fact that a work is previously revised, revised again, edited, copy edited, and the galleys read by you, your editor, the copy editor and a few friends may not mean that that the disease is cured. I say “may not mean” because I have never tested the theory, primarily because, if I did test the theory I might want not only to rip the work up and start all over again, I might want to rip the work up and NOT start all over again. I might want the work not to exist at all. And then where would I be?

I know where I would be. I would be spending the rest of my life hunting down every copy of that work, in all editions and all languages, in hopes that, after unearthing and assembling them all, I could afford to pay a shredding company to dispose of them.
But then, there is a possibility that I might not want to shred every copy, a possibility that I might actually like this novel I wrote distant decades ago when I was an entirely different person than I am now. I might come to see that the novel—written by a person to whose mind I no longer have any access—had actually produced a brilliant and moving work of great power and insight. But this would be even worse because I suspect that the writing I am doing now is so different from my previous writing, that, if I were to be impressed by my previous work, I would have to conclude that time and age have destroyed the very brain cells that permitted me, in my youth, to write a brilliant and moving work of great power and insight. And then, of course, I would want to tear up and NOT start all over again the novel I am working on now in order to avoid the public humiliation of being a writer who has lost whatever it was she once had.

So there is naught for it, in my opinion, it but to fully avoid having anything to do with one’s previous work. So far I have kept all of my previous work at bay; out of sight, out of mind. But if you come across me trawling through the used bookstores of our vast nation, dragging a sack full of copies of Changing Heaven or The Underpainter (even writing down the titles makes me want to change them) behind me, or if you hear I have torched a work-in-progress, you will know I broke my vow. 

Jane Urquhart is the author of five internationally acclaimed novels, including The Whirlpool, Away, and The Stone Carvers. She is also the author of a collection of short fiction, Storm Glass, and four books of poetry. Her work has been translated into numerous foreign languages. Urquhart has received the Marian Engel Award, and is a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France and an Officer of the Order of Canada. Jane Urquhart lives in Southwestern Ontario.

Jane Urquhart photo credit: John Carter

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