When Your Old Stuff Makes You Cringe

Let me start by apologizing for my use of the word “cringe” in the title of this blog. It’s a perfectly good word, but I’ve come to hate it because it’s so often associated with cancel culture. You hear talking heads on YouTube using it to pass judgment on people who have the gall to not police their own language. Such cringeworthy times we live in!

Anyway, the thing that’s making me cringe today is the first draft of a novel I wrote–my first–right at the turn of the millennium. I probably started it in 1999 and declared a muted victory on the first draft in 2001. But it never went anywhere.

Not because the novel isn’t any good. It’s not. But it stayed on the shelf because my entire writing practice went cold about then, only to start to thaw a couple years ago.

I have a hard copy of it in front of me now, and I’ve been torturing myself by reading through it for the last day or so. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I’ve been flipping through the 115 single spaced pages and reading a few lines here and there, but I haven’t been able to really read it. The manuscript is so bad!

But still, I’m glad I have a copy of it. It’s weird, because I have at least two competing emotions about the manuscript. On the one hand, I still love the characters I created, and it’s like they’re still in this state of suspended animation, loitering around the scenes I created when I was barely 25. The story is called The Broad Stroke, and it’s a comic novel that is pretty clearly inspired by Confederacy of Dunces. Again, it’s not rendered especially well. Not at all. But I’m still fond of the story, in part because it’s ridiculous–a journalist at the university paper discovers a student run prostitution ring that turns out to be ran by his editor–and in part because it’s the first novel I ever wrote. But on the other hand, it reads like exactly what it is–the first draft of a green, unskilled writer.

I wish I had not stopped writing, because if I had kept going, I’d at least have some other works to look back and compare against. Maybe I would be able to look back and see progress. As it stands, I just have this little time capsule of a young version of me who was all ambition, no technique, and no discipline.

And to put a final, very blunt point on it all: it’s embarrassing. That’s the nut of it, right. When we read stuff written by a former self, we tend to get embarrassed.

And so maybe the question becomes, what can I learn from this stack of 20 year old pages in Times New Roman? I’m sure there are lessons to draw, and if I was in a different kind of mood, I might meander through a handful of them. But I’m not feeling it today.

Maybe the simplest way to view it is this: on at least one occasion, I had the balls and ambition to conceive of a story and then try to render it in words. And really, it’s pretty ridiculous. The editor is the madam of this prostitution ring, which she runs from the newsroom of this university in Lafayette. The photographer, most of the other writers, even the janitor . . . they all work for the madam/editor. But then this new, nerdy reporter shows up and in his bumbling way, finds a lead and starts to unravel the whole thing. The madam/editor’s dad is a professor in the English department, and since he uses the prostitution service–totally oblivious to the fact that his daughter runs the thing–he gets caught up in the fall out. There’s a big scene at a gay Tiki-bar in Baton Rouge called “Cohones”, a serial flasher exposing himself around campus, and a surely father figure who spits out parental advice from his Barcalounger.

Aside from the way it’s written, the whole story is pretty hilarious.

Hmm. Maybe I need to rethink this whole thing. Maybe it’s just a shitty first draft. And, isn’t that the way every great novel starts out?

Published by New Bayou Books

JR Reed started New Bayou Books to spark a revolution in Louisiana literature. The goal of the company is simple: to great writers out of the shadows to carry on the Louisiana literary tradition.

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