There was a pile of 3.5 floppy disks safely protected in a wooden box on the bookshelf I was dismantling to make room for...well, nothing. We just wanted more roominess in our home office. Judging from the labels, there didn’t appear to be anything really earthshaking housed on those thin magnetic films, as there were as many things crossed out and written over as there were true identifying labels. (As a computer lab instructor, I used to shock and surprise my elementary-school students by cracking open a disk and showing them why they were called “floppy” since the hard plastic case was anything but. I earned my “cool” teacher designation by destructing the mysterious disks!)
But curiosity got the best of me; I couldn’t just throw them out, could I? What if something important was on those disks? What if I had written the Great American Novel on one of them and had just forgotten about it? It was a twelve-inch high pile of disks. Surely there was some profound and vital literary work on those floppies!
Any machine that would be able to read those disks had been relegated--in pieces--to the attic, garage or tag sale so I found and bought a floppy disk reader online. Many of the disks could have probably been tossed right out unchecked, but I’m compulsive enough to have looked at every single one of them. Some disks couldn’t be read, thank god, but I was able to pull quite a bit of my old work off of most of them. I found poems written for my kids and other kids I used to teach, a couple of short stories about women in dire circumstances, letters to editors, papers from my graduate program, beginnings of essays, notes on characters, several personal journals and reams more, some yet to retrieve.
If you ever have the opportunity to delve into previously forgotten past work, plan on spending some time with it. Much of my writing was done during difficult and challenging times in my life. Divorce, single parenthood, weeks when I was squeezing pennies until they screamed and other times where my understanding of reality was not what it is now. Some of these disks are from twenty years ago or more and the emotion is still there, as if magnetically recorded along with the keystrokes. I was drawn right into those emotions, they are stored in my brain and easily accessed. Once, after a session with my old writing, I feel like I came out of it blinking back the light, as if I had just awakened from a deep sleep. I was a little disoriented; I needed to take some time to “come back” to the present day. I hope you don’t mind a Harry Potter reference (because I’m a serious HP fan) but rereading the words, ideas and conclusions I wrote years ago was like ducking my head into the Pensieve and remembering a world I had lost touch with. (OK...for the non-HP fans, the Pensieve is a bowl of water/gas-like substance that contains the memories of an individual and Harry dunks his head into it to get an idea of what this person was experiencing and thereby gaining insight into previously misunderstood actions or behaviors. See? Relevant.)
A word of warning: I experienced some regret. It had to do with the fact that I hadn’t committed more effort to pursuing an actual writing career. I let so many things dissuade my desire; some legitimate things, like an income. But others, like fear, were revealed as insubstantial as the floppy films themselves. However, there are a couple of things I discovered that makes going back in worthwhile: The first is that my voice remains true. I wrote my master’s thesis on staying true to one’s writing voice and I continue to champion the writer’s voice in my classes and as an editor of the annual anthology for those students.
The second thing, and maybe what made me feel really good, is I like my work. I’ve always said (to anyone who will listen) that even if no one ever read my essays, articles and stories, I enjoy them. I have been known to chuckle aloud at my own essays. It feels boastful to admit that, but it’s true. If you think about it, if you don’t like your own work, why bother spending all that time and energy on writing or sending out queries or submitting to contests, journals or websites? It’s like not liking your own children, but raising them anyway.
For those of us who struggle to make our writing important in our daily lives, I think it is equally important to stay connected with our body of work. Our past efforts--stories, journal entries, submissions--inform our present efforts; we build on our successes and mistakes, over and over again. Even if you don’t uncover a previously forgotten Great American Novel (I didn’t) there is real substance in the work we’ve left behind, forgotten in drawers, in notebooks, old floppies or buried in files on our computer. For me, digging though those files gave me a sense of continuity and the encouragement to stay the course.
It’s not really work we can quit, is it?