Word Hoarding – Why I Never Delete My Work

Confession – I don’t understand how writers delete their work. Before meeting some of you, I never considered this as a possibility. I mean, there’s a reason I have so many stories to give on Throwback Thursday!

Yet some writers say looking back will cripple their confidence or style, and the only way to improve is to ignore/delete that shoddy practice writing. I think every writer should do what’s best for them, but here are my reasons – good and bad – for why I am physically incapable of deletion.

Even a bestseller is still just practice. If my novel is published to mass acclaim, I’ll still probably hate it in ten years. I will look back and think “This is so bad. I am so much better now. I wish no one would read this ever again.” No matter how good you are now, you can always get better and you probably will get better. But that doesn’t mean what you’re doing now is necessarily bad and deserves to be trashed. Even professional artists – George Lucas, I’m looking at you – will never be 100% happy with their work. And that’s a pretty bad reason to set your whole writing portfolio on fire.

I’m a hoarder. It runs in the family. My aunt is a bona fide hoarder of junk, like the kind you see on Hoarders: Buried Alive. They say that hoarders collect things with special meaning – which can be manifested as “I have a fond memory of this” or even “I might use this some day. I cannot throw away something with use.” For me, I cannot throw away something I created, even if it’s bad to a level that brings me shame. Mostly because I think it might be useful some day, but also because I’d feel like I was killing a part of myself, my history. I can’t do it, Elsa. I can’t let it go.

It makes me a better editor. My failure to delete may seem like I can’t “kill my darlings.” Yes, I still have every iteration of Paradisa – even 30 pages of an EAAARLY draft from NaNo 2011. But there have been times in the Paradisa process where I’ve said “I’m going to put that scene from Draft One back in”, and was grateful that I still had the file. I think saving stuff actually makes me a better editor because I don’t have to hold back. I don’t have to worry about making massive changes because “Oh no, what if I want that back later!” I have complete freedom to change anything without the stress of it being permanent, which allows me to go crazy with a red pen.

I’m nostalgic. I hold onto movie ticket stubs. I’m that person. And I really enjoy flipping through writing I did as a child, seeing where my mind was during that time. Even in projects that have no potential to be retooled, like The Outcasts, I appreciate the authenticity of my YA voice in it. I wrote it when I was 12, after all. You don’t get much more authentic than that. I enjoy rediscovering the thoughts and voices I’ve projected through my life.

It might be useful some day. And then you’ve got stuff like Beyond Boundaries, which was quite obviously written by a child, but had an imaginative concept I may eventually revisit.

Or it might be worth something someday. Yeah, it’s a stretch, but I bet if Dickens had a childhood notebook full of old stories, it would sell for a gazillion dollars. I can aspire to that, can’t I?

I keep some perspective. Maybe I’m overconfident or ignorant, but I lack some insecurity that other writers have. Oh believe me, I have insecurity and plenty of moments of doubt. But so many writers get hung up on their insecurities to a level of, “Oh my GOD, look at all this passive voice, look at this bad dialogue, BURN IT!”  However, it really doesn’t bother me to see that I wrote something poorly. I can say “I’m way better now and I can see why this piece is totally unpublishable” but I can also say “huh, I wasn’t that bad for a teenager.” And with the more recent bad stuff, I can say “well, I would never show another human being this, but the ideas here aren’t bad. Or the jokes are witty. Or maybe I can use this character in another project.”

Not to mention, I promise that Stephen King still writes bad lines. Maybe even paragraphs. Maybe even…..whole books! We’re all gonna write crap, even when we know what we’re doing. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Good writing is mostly just due to good editing, and none of us have written anything that was 100% full on crap. There is always some kernel of positive that can be mined for later.

Most of all, I believe the reason some stories fail is because we’re simply not ready for them. We call them failures because we wrote them before we were lucid to the world, before we had a mastery of the craft, before we’d done our research on the topic. I don’t believe I should just toss these aside as irredeemable. I can always come back years later and say “it’s all clear to me now. I know exactly how to fix this.”

And sometimes it isn’t about skill. I have stories that I only could have written in the personal era I wrote them. The feelings and thoughts and perspective on the world I had at 17 allowed me to write Heaven For The Weather, which was met to really high acclaim in the fandom community. I couldn’t write that story today. I could probably write it better stylistically, but the mythos and themes of it could only be written by the mind I had then. When I was 18 I wrote another fic that explored a very specific theme of “loving someone who doesn’t know you love them, and who you can’t be with, but being happy about it.” There were only two months in my life that I nailed down that feeling and those were the months I wrote that story. That’s an emotion I probably would have forgotten about otherwise, but now it’s been immortalized.

I’m not going to tell you whether you should or shouldn’t delete your work. That’s for you to decide. But I don’t feel like I’m less of a determined, real writer for holding onto mine. And as you can tell from all the reasons above, I’ll probably never change!

8 thoughts on “Word Hoarding – Why I Never Delete My Work

  1. I’ve never deleted any of my older fiction, including the earlier drafts that I happened to save. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I remember all the passwords that unlock them…

    Yes, even Stephen King writes some bad passages. He slips in cliches. He goes overboard on description. And yet I still devour his books, because he’s such a good storyteller. So you’re right, we’ll never be 100% content with our work. Nor perhaps, should we be.

    • I’m glad to find another person who thinks like this :D

      J.K. Rowling grew quite obviously between HP books 1 and 7….but that doesn’t mean 1 was bad! I wouldn’t be surprised if she doubts a lot of what she did in Sorcerer’s Stone, but hey, still launched a billion dollar franchise. Even the best doubt themselves.

      • Exactly. Have you read her new series? I love it. The first one, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” was a bit heavy on the description, but the second one, “The Silkworm” was terrific. I’m looking forward to the third.

      • Not yet, but I’ve heard they’re excellent. That series flies a bit under the radar for me because she’s using a pseudonym, heh! I remember her first non-Potter book, “The Casual Vacancy” seemed a bit dull in the synopsis. But those detective novels are well-reviewed.

  2. I can’t even begin to imagine deleting my own work. When I lost all of my work some 12 years ago because of a virus on my computer, I felt like a librarian watching the Library of Alexandria burn down. It was just awful. Hell, I still feel bad about it, even if I know I would hate much of it, so I agree with you.

    Btw, an author’s early work is called “juvenilia” and Dickens does have some :), so if you are famous, those will be worth something one day.

    • Oh my goodness.There have been times when my computer crashed in the middle of an unsaved chapter and rewriting a couple pages was bad enough. Losing and entire library of work is my worst nightmare. Like, if I lost my handcrafted books from when I was six in a fire….those are irreplacable. I can’t just “make” those again. No one else can make those. The ones I have now are the only ones that will ever be.

      (I have a penchance for rare/obscure objects which help along my obsession with preserving my work! It’s all one of a kind, for better or worse!)

      I did lose some stuff in 2004 though, when I switched from my old desktop to my current one. My old desktop did not have a functional CD drive and this was before flash drives. My only method of file saving was floppys. Most of the writing was salvaged because it was small, but I did lose a ton of podcasts I’d recorded :/

      I think everyone should hold onto their juvenilia :P You never know who will make it!

  3. This is exactly how I feel about my writing. I’ve hoarded things since I was eleven, from poetry about horses and then in my college years, stupid stories about men I couldn’t have. I can’t get rid of it. I feel like it’s a piece of me that I’d never get back, like a memory, if I delete it. I think it’s more about preserving our identity than hanging onto a box full of knick knacks.

    I supposed I’d rather hoard writing than actual things that clutter up my house.

    And yes, totally agreed on keeping old writing to see how far you’ve grown. It’s a real confidence booster when you feel stuck and unworthy, and then you can go “Oh god, I was way more terrible than this. I can do this!”

    At least I think so anyway. :)

    • Totally! A lot of writers can’t stand to read bad older work. But I see how it’s a confidence booster. Very much like “look how far I’ve come.”

      Mostly, I’m just sentimental. They’re like cherished memories. Even if they’re totally stupid and poorly done, they meant something to us at one point. Most of my high school memories are petty and dumb, but I still like having them. In some way, they had to have shaped me.

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