Your Old Writing is an Embarrassment

As part of the grad-school application process, I have to submit a writing sample along with all the other odds and ends. Ideally, they say, you should submit a research paper from your time in college. Although that was some time ago, a specific piece of writing comes to mind—a final paper from one of my last senior-year courses. But when I dug that paper up from an abandoned Google Drive folder and gave it a quick read-through, it…wasn’t quite as stellar as I remembered.

Of course, I cut myself some slack. I was younger then, less experienced. I hadn’t been writing a blog for three years nor had I even started my copywriting career. In the ensuing years, I’ve honed and improved my writing skills (it would be fairly embarrassing if I hadn’t).

With that said, it’s clear that any piece of writing I reread today will come back to haunt me. Not just school work, but my two-year-old book and earlier posts on this blog.

It’s inevitable that, when you look back at our old work, you’ll shake your at head and laugh at your younger, less experienced self. And I know it’s inevitable not only because I’ve been feeling it, but because in the past week alone, this simple fact has popped up two other times (and across time)—one reminder from an Austrian-in-exile writing in 1942 and other from a fellow blogger (and friend) writing in 2017.

“I did not like my own earlier work anymore; I would not let new editions of any of the books of my aesthetic period be brought out. That meant beginning again, waiting for the impatiently rolling wave of all these ‘isms’ to ebb away, and here my lack of personal ambition came in useful. I began to write my series of Baumeister der Welt deliberately, in the knowledge that it would certainly occupy me for years.”Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday”

“In fact, even just thinking back several months, I can see how my thinking and mannerisms have grown and evolved. On a lot of levels, I’m embarrassed by the way I thought and presented myself in the past. Several months from now, I’ll be embarrassed of this version of Jay. I love that! I’m stoked about how quickly I’m learning, growing, and changing. If I’m not a little bit embarrassed by the previous version of myself, then I’m not pushing myself.”Jay Clouse

And both of those sentiments, coming in such rapid succession, remind me of yet other expressions of the same idea from Alain de Botton, a British-Swiss author, via Austin Kleon’s 2014 Show Your Work.

“Whenever your feel like you’ve learned whatever there is to learn from what you’re doing, it’s time to change course and find something new to learn so you can move forward. You can’t be content with mastery; you have to push yourself to become a student again. ‘Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough,’ writes author Alain de Botton.”

With time and experience, yesterday’s work will always pale in comparison to what we can achieve today. And, paradoxically, it can be a positive reminder that you’re growing, that now, you’re capable of more.

But to this advice, I want to add a word of warning. Taken to its extreme conclusion, you might think that if, no matter what, you’re going to be embarrassed of today’s work tomorrow, then there’s no reason to give today’s work your all. And that couldn’t be farther from the truth. To look back fondly on old work, to really see your progress—to even make progress and grow—you have to know that today’s work is the best you can possibly produce. The embarrassment of putting out work that’s not your best is not the same as the embarrassment of youth and inexperience.

Looking back to my youth and inexperience, I am gearing up for some major rehab on this dusty, old research paper. I’ll have to reconsult sources, expand a few sections, and rewrite a lot of the stilted prose. And in the end, I’ll step back and admit that it’s far better than the original.

But, by the time I complete graduate school, I might look back at this newer version of the paper, the one from 2017, and shake my head. Future me will laugh at 2017 me, thinking that, with a fancy doctorate degree, I’m finally doing my best work. That I’ll never look back with embarrassment at the work I’m doing then. And I, of course, will be wrong.

Such is the creative process.

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