Revisiting old work: yes or no?

Today I came across a quote* by American writer Richard Ford:

Do I read my old fiction?  No.  Why would I do that?  I did the books as well as I could at the time.  To go back would be a torment. 

It reminded me of a conversation I had over coffee not too long ago, with a friend (a writer too incidentally) who was suggesting the opposite: that regularly going back to old work is important- nay, essential.  I could see some of the points to her argument, such as rediscovering what made your creativity tick, or mapping the issues or themes that, like stars in a constellation, mark the different points of your creative development.

I remember her going as far as making a case for improving the work from your present standpoint: with the knowledge and skill you have today.  While tempting, photshopping the past strikes me as more than a little unfair, and is where I hear my inner self asking along with Richard Ford: Why would I do that?

time travel

Unlikely to work: travel back to your creative past 

The best way I can verbalise my reaction, it’s ‘because then there wouldn’t be any truth in it’.  In the same way that there wouldn’t be any merit in going back with your college expertise to correct work from when you were in Primary school.

Why try to airbrush that technical gap out of sight?

‘I did the [work] as well as I could at the time.’  To me this sentence feels good. It’s liberating, it’s realistic, and it’s self-forgiving: our work, like ourselves, is made (among other things) of inspiration that happened at a particular time for a particular reason, and of mistakes that were subsequently learnt.  Why scramble to hide what doesn’t suit us now?  I am not saying wear your past mistakes with pride either- just leave them be, quietly, as something that taught you what you know now.

I don’t often go back to listen to my early soundscapes.  When I do, it’s either to find a particular sound, or it’s out of nostalgia for a location, for people, for some personal experience, for a moment in time.  But from a technical point of view, I am once again with Ford: it is torment, because I notice that gap, and I am someone who minds.  I hear every single one of the mistakes I wouldn’t make now, and I remember all the things I wanted to do that I didn’t know how to, and now I do.  (Let’s just say it’s not the most relaxing, detached experience.)

But would I go back and tinker with soundscapes or field recordings to make them better, from the raised bar standpoint of today?  Absolutely not.  Soundscapes to me are equivalent to writing a journal. There would be absolutely no point in falsifying an entry to make it sound better.


* [The Sunday Business Post Magazine, Nov 9th, p. 4]

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